Regional NSW BPL pilot to smash city broadband speeds

Country Energy (CE) is expected to supply the first commercial Broadband over Power line service in NSW in the latter half of the year. This means Internet surfers in regional NSW will, for the first time, have access to speeds that smash what is available to most users in the city.

The NSW-based power distribution provider has been working for over four years on bringing the service to fruition. The CE Executive will meet in August to consider the business case of the service.

"If it is approved we will commence a commercial pilot in Q4," said Geoff Fietz, manager of telecommunications enterprises at Country Energy.

Despite still needing management approval, Fietz was quietly confident the commercial pilot will proceed.

The utility has already been trialling BPL since November 2004 in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. That trial started with a 45Mbps service from hardware supplier Mitsubishi, but has since gone on to incorporate Mitsubishi's latest 200Mbps chip, which is now the standard speed offered by BPL providers worldwide.

Although logically the pilot points to Queanbeyan, Fietz remained tight-lipped about which part of NSW will receive the commercial service. He did say the pilot will cover a section of a regional town, passing about 300 houses.

"We feel 300 is a respectable number and will give us a good base to work from."

He also said the pilot will be provided in an area which already offers DSL. "We are going head-to-head against DSL. We feel we need to indicate that BPL can stand on its own."

A number of consumer plans will be offered, but Fietz did not provide specific details.

Unlike ADSL, the technical specifications of BPL provides for symmetric speeds, allowing users to benefit from the same upload speeds as download. The plans will most likely start at 10Mbps. However, the system can reach a theoretical maximum speed of 200Mbps.

Although BPL is very much a nascent technology in the country, this 200Mbps speed is significantly faster than what is offered by current cable or DSL providers.

According to the ACCC the majority of Australian broadband users are accessing broadband via ADSL technology which offers a maximum 1.5Mbps download limit. ADSL2+ presently offered by a handful of ISPs, does offer a maximum 24Mbps download with 1Mbps upstream. A drawback to ADSL2+ is that it's technically only available to residents that live within 1km of their exchange. Meanwhile, Optus' cable plans offer peak download speed of 9.9Mbps and upload speeds of 256Kbps.

Apart from fast speeds, Country Energy will also offer customers VoIP from two different suppliers. A video on demand service is also on the table.

To receive the service customers need to buy a BPL modem which plugs into a power point. PCs connect to the modems either via Ethernet or USB ports.

From the modem, the signal is then sent to a metering device that is housed in the mains power box attached to the outside of the house. After it leaves the home, the signal passes along the low voltage (LV) powerlines, going through repeaters every 400 metres or so, and then ending up at the Head End, which is the box containing the 200Mbps Mitsubishi or Schneider equipment. This equipment then connects to a fibre pipe which ultimately leads into the telecommunications network and to the Internet.

The service will be delivered underground, rather than above ground power lines. A drawback of BPL is that it emits noise that can interfere with high frequency signals used by amateur radio operators, of which there are 14,000 around Australia. The level of interference is significantly weaker when transmitted on underground cables as the ground absorbs most of this noise.

Fietz said the pilot will incorporate equipment from Mitsubishi and Schneider Electric. Both vendors have played an active role in Australia's BPL deployments and trials to date.

Long time coming

Country Energy's exploration of BPL technology commenced in 2001 largely through the interest that was already shown by Great Southern Energy, one of the three state-owned energy providers that were merged to form the power entity.

Country Energy commissioned independent telecommunications consulting company, Gibson Quai in 2002 to conduct a report about the viability of the service. The consultant's conclusion was that BPL represented "a good opportunity for Country Energy to add value to the existing infrastructure and to provide new services to its customers."

Following this, a BPL Business Development Plan was approved by the Country Energy Executive in May 2002 and set out a three-phase exploration process: Bench testing, Grid testing and Commercial pilot.

Subsequent reports and investigations have followed. To deal with the radio interference caused by BPL, Fietz said Country Energy brought out an expert from the Open University at Manchester, to conduct research.

Most recently in October, Rothcorp Research was hired to conduct telephone interviews across various regional centres asking them a series of questions relating to BPL technology. All up, 100 small businesses and 308 households were surveyed.

"A lot of work has needed to be done to develop the technology in-house. We have meandered through it, but always in a detailed way," he said.

Country Energy's reach is massive. The group came into being after the July 2001 merger of three state-owned energy providers: NorthPower in Port Macquarie, Advanced Energy in Bathurst, and Great Southern Energy in Queanbeyan. Broken Hill's Australia Inland Energy joined in July 2005. Geographically its grid covers 90 per cent of NSW - excluding Sydney, the Hunter region and the Southern Highlands - and includes 190,000km of power lines.

Juergen Bender, an international expert on BPL and one of the people responsible for the first ever BPL trial in Germany a decade ago, stressed that BPL is not a solution for all things.

"It will always be a niche technology," he said.

Wherever cable or DSL are seen as the incumbent broadband access technologies, BPL will find it tough to compete, he said.

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Howard Dahdah

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