Study: Powerline broadband set to grow in 2005

Powerline broadband service is poised for commercial growth in 2005, a white paper says.

Broadband customers in the US looking for an alternative to cable-modem or DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service may not have long to wait for broadband over powerline service (BPL), according to a white paper published Thursday by a technology-focused research group.

After more than 20 BPL trials across the US in 2004 and more expected this year, BPL is ready for commercial rollout and "primed for real growth," according to the paper published by the New Millennium Research Council (NMRC), a Washington, D.C., group made up of scholars and telecommunications experts. The group's report is an attempt to examine the BPL market without taking sides or recommending policy, said Allen Hepner, NMRC's executive director.

"Broadband over powerline technology is getting more and more attention today," Hepner said during a press conference. "There are a number of experts who suggest that this could be the time the technology begins its emergence as a viable competitor in the broadband market."

BPL supporters, including members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), have championed the technology as giving consumers more broadband choices. By modifying existing electrical lines, BPL vendors are able to transmit data at speeds similar to cable or DSL, and some advocates of the technology see BPL as a way to bring broadband to rural areas now underserved by cable or DSL.

In October 2004, the FCC approved a set of rules designed to limit BPL interference to other radio frequency devices such as amateur radios. But groups such as the American Radio Relay League continue to protest rollouts of BPL, saying BPL transmitters cause significant interference to ham radios.

Despite the protests, it's estimated that more than 250,000 US households already can choose BPL service, Hepner said. Included in those numbers is an ongoing citywide rollout in Manassas, Virginia, through Communication Technologies, called COMTek.

In July, the company, based in Chantilly, Virginia, received a 10-year franchise from the city to provide citywide BPL service. More than 10 percent of the homes passed so far have signed up for COMTek's service, and by April, the company's BPL service will be available to all of the city's 12,500 homes and 2,500 businesses, said Joseph Fergus, COMTek's president and chief executive officer.

The company has a waiting list in Manassas of about 1,300 people, and it hopes to eventually win the business of 20 percent to 30 percent of the homes and businesses in the city, Fergus said. BPL is "moving beyond theoretical stage," he said.

"COMTek is in the business of commercial deployment of BPL, not the technology trial and not merely service pilots," Fergus said. "What I'm excited about today is that BPL has arrived. It is out there in commercial deployment, and it's being embraced by consumers."

While some commentators have called BPL a third broadband wire, Fergus called it the first wire, because electrical lines came to most US homes before telephone and cable lines. "Now that millions of Americans are abandoning their traditional phone lines for wireless cell phones and cable for satellite TV, it may mean that the electricity coming into your home will be the last wire," he said. "We certainly don't have to worry about the infrastructure we use for BPL going anywhere anytime soon."

Two other speakers at the NMRC raised questions about BPL's future. While BPL has the potential to serve 13 million US households in the next three to five years, interference problems and a reluctance from many electric companies to offer new services may slow its development, said Barry Goodstadt, vice president at market research firm Harris Interactive.

A handful of BPL trials in Europe and elsewhere have been shut down because of interference problems, added Robert Olsen, an electrical engineering professor at Washington State University. While the FCC has set down rules about interference, those rules have not yet been challenged in the real world, he added.

Interference is "the real wild card," Olsen said.

Martin Howells, the NSW State Coordinator of Australian Citizens Radio Emergency Monitors (ACREM) says Interference is not only a wild card, but the real problem.

These US problems are very similar to those found in Australian tests. "Although the ACA and others are advocating that 'Australian power distribution networks are different to those used in the USA and Europe', these 'differences' will have very little impact on the effects of BPL which is largely due to transmitting HF radio frequencies across unshielded power lines, a fact that is not different in Australia," Howells said.

There have been several trials conducted or underway in Australia. NSW energy provider EnergyAustralia announced that it had completed a successful trial of BPL in Newcastle at the end of last year. Other recent trials have occurred in Queanbeyan, by Country Energy, and in Tasmania by Aurora Energy.

Although the US seems to pushing ahead with trials, Australians should take note of both sides of the argument.

"Australian industry seems to be pointing at the USA and saying 'see, they have it so it must be OK', then they should also open their eyes and see the other side, and the problems it is now causing," Howells said.

The NMRC white paper is at http://www.newmillenniumresearch.org/archive/bpl_report022405.pdf.

(Additional reporting by Howard Dahdah).

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