Cisco's EnergyWise May Be Great -- but Remember BPL


Cisco's new EnergyWise program, which the company will help organizations deploy in three phases, raises at least the possibility of a trifecta: It's green, it saves money, and it can give the IT department tremendous control over anything a company uses that is driven by electricity.


EnergyWise is described in this NewsFactor story as a way to measure, map, report and control energy costs. In the first phase, it will deal with electronic devices such as PCs and IP phones. In addition to monitoring, a hierarachy is established under which unimportant devices are allocated less power or turned completely off when they are not needed. The second phase, due next year, will enable all the electrical elements of a building-lights, heating and air conditioning, etc. -- to be monitored and controlled in the same fashion. The final phase will give the company this ability across disparate locations.


Some elements of this are reminiscent of broadband over powerline (BPL). BPL's main task is to bring broadband signals-albeit barely broadband by some definitions-to rural folks through the power grid. A powerful byproduct is the ability to do the command and control for the utility that Cisco is promising the enterprise.


It's a comparison that Cisco doesn't want to hear. BPL suffered from technical challenges-it's not easy to ferry dainty communications signals alongside all those boisterous electrons. The approach ran afoul of amateur radio operators, who claimed that systems interfered with their signals. Finally, the market largely disappeared as dialup became faster, broadband became cheaper, and wired and wireless connectivity became more plentiful.


Much of this, of course, has nothing to do with EnergyWise. The two approaches are significantly different, but share enough that Cisco and the IT departments considering deploying EnergyWise should be aware of the long and dissatisfying history of BPL.


The stresses of so many nay-sayers clearly has taken its toll on the vibrancy of BPL. On January 16, the FCC released the latest data on BPL usage, which were current as of Dec. 31, 2007. The commission said that during the six months previous to the end of the year, denizens of the "power line and other" category dropped from 5,420 to 5,274. The story noted that the document did not distinguish how many of the users were "other" and how many used BPL. Regardless, the results certainly suggest that the category-at least at the end of 2007-had gained virtually no traction.


BPL isn't dead yet, though. Earlier this month, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers approved IEEE 1675, a standard for testing and verification of hardware and primary couplers for BPL installations. It also suggests installation methods. There also was a fairly important deal last year. In November, IBM and the International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC)-provider of BPL and smart grid technologies-agreed to install the technology at electric cooperatives in the eastern United States. The press release offered no more specifics, but noted that there are more than 900 electrical cooperatives in the country that provide 45 percent of the total electrical grid while covering 75 percent of the land mass. IBM agreed to provide project management, oversight and training to line crews who will be installing the gear, the press release says.

This reaction piece to the IBEC/IBM announcement has a bit more information. The writer says the deal will lead to the wiring of 340,000 homes within the next two years. He analyzes the sector, and suggests that BPL is a stopgap that is viable only until another platform-most likely cable modems, DSL or wireless-reaches town (or the farm). He says that its real benefit is to enable the utilities to monitor usage. As far as power distribution is concerned, he says in-home networking is "the area that gets me most excited about BPL."


I am not suggesting that Cisco's initiative will suffer the fate of BPL. Indeed, EnergyWise faces a different set of marketplace-and probably technical-hurdles. The similarities are close enough, however, to make some knowledge of the BPL experience relevant to enterprises kicking the EnergyWise tires.