Utilities switch on to broadband over powerlines

Broadband over powerlines is allowing utilities to tap existing infrastructure cheaply, fill market gaps in underserved regions...

Broadband over powerlines is allowing utilities to tap existing infrastructure cheaply, fill market gaps in underserved regions and benefit from plummeting equipment costs.

Critics, though, still point to uncertainties about consumer adoption and the viability of the still-emerging broadband alternative.

One of the earliest adopters of broadband over powerlines is the city of Manassas in Virginia, which has signed a deal with local utility Communication Technologies to extend broadband services across the city's powerlines to 15,000 residential and commercial locations for less than $30 (£16) a month.

Communication Technologies vice-president Walter Adams said since the company had begun installing the equipment in September, it had penetrated 10% of the coverage area. Under the deal, the company pays the capital cost of installation and provides customer care and billing support, while the city provides field technicians to install the equipment and 60 miles of fibre optics for the Ethernet-based backbone.

Revenue is shared between the city and the utility and Adams said he anticipated a return on the $1.5m investment within three to seven years.

But other energy executives were sceptical about the financial returns from investing in broadband over powerlines.

Phil Slack of Florida Power & Light said his company had had to replace 2,000 miles of powerlines and 13,000 poles after four hurricanes hit Florida this summer. "There is broadband powerline equipment that you have to add to poles, and you have to factor that into your thinking," he said.

Slack also said above-ground power equipment exposed to saltwater and humidity along the coast was vulnerable to rusting. "We haven't gone to a full-scale market trial yet," he said. "The technology isn't ready yet for Florida, although it's getting close."

Factors that favour the technology include last month's FCC ruling to allow electric utilities to provide broadband over powerline services so long as they adhere to powerline radiation-emission restrictions and follow consistent and repeatable measurement guidelines.

"The FCC has essentially given us the green light to go forward," said Brett Kilbourne of the United Power Line Council, an alliance of electric utilities and technology companies involved in broadband over powerlines. Before the ruling, there were concerns that transmissions would interfere with ham radio and other shortwave radio communications.

Power companies also hope that broadband investments will allow them to support their own applications such as load forecasting, demand management and the ability to predict and correct electrical equipment failures before they occur.

"It's like having a real-time asset management system," said Tim Frost, director of corporate planning at Consolidated Edison, which is about to launch trials of utility applications using broadband services in Manhattan.

Thomas Hoffman writes for Computerworld

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