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Broadband over powerline is ready to explode

You plug a cell phone-size adapter into any electrical outlet in your house and you've got 3M bit/sec. Internet service

By Lamont Wood
March 1, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Some call it "the third wire" and others call it "broadband over powerline" (BPL). But for Tim Barhorst, a technology consultant in Cincinnati, it's his Internet connection.

"It seems equivalent to standard cable service and a little faster than standard DSL," he noted. "But the speed is not asynchronous, meaning you get the same speed upstream and downstream."

Barhorst is getting his broadband Internet connection via BPL, through the power lines that run to his house, from a utility called Duke Energy, although the Internet service is handled by Current Communications in Germantown, Md.

Third-wire users like Barhorst are likely to become a lot more common in the next five years. Chris Rodin, an analyst at Parks Associates in Dallas, estimates that there are today no more than 150,000 BPL users in the U.S., but he expects to see the figure rise to 2.5 million by 2011, especially in rural areas unserved by cable or DSL.

Benefits of a smart grid

But the impetus to install BPL is not a desire by the power utilities to compete with AT&T or Time Warner, Rodin said. Rather, offering Internet service is an associated benefit of the power companies moving to "smart grids" that include components such as sensors and interactive controls. He pointed out that today a power company doesn't know that a transformer has failed until a customer calls to complain about the lights being out, but with a smart grid, faster responses and proactive maintenance would be possible. Thereafter, offering retail Internet service is icing on the cake, he indicated.

The benefits of a smart grid include smaller power outages and less loss of energy in transmission. Every day in the U.S. an average of 500,000 people experience a power failure of at least two hours, said Clark Gellings, vice president of the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit research consortium in Palo Alto, Calif. The resulting annual loss of productivity has been pegged at $180 billion, he added.

But a smart grid ought to be able to cut those outages by 80%, he estimated. About 7% of power is lost in transmission, and smart grids should cut that loss by 10%, he added.

Meanwhile, power customers could have smart electric meters that automatically report usage, eliminating the need for meter readers. The smart meters would allow additional features, such as discounts for those who cut their usage during peak hours, sources agreed.

And, fortuitously, smart grids offer a perfect opportunity to offer more services to customers, such as BPL. "There is a lot of interest in BPL," noted Gellings. "It's the Holy Grail of the power industry to use the same wires that we use to deliver energy to communicate as well, but for years it was too cumbersome." And BPL only became realistic after several technical advances, he said, chiefly couplers that let the BPL signal bypass power transformers.

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