Broadband over powerline last mile networks: more hype than hope

Sean Buckley, FierceTelecomOnce heralded by former FCC leader Michael Powell as "great broadband hope," broadband over powerline (BPL) has become the "great broadband hype" now that International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) has shut down its business, putting another nail in the coffin of BPL as a last mile broadband access technology alternative.

Offering nothing more than an apology letter to existing customers, IBEC said on its website that it attributes its closing to the damage caused by tornadoes in the rural markets it was serving.

"Due to our inability to overcome the financial damage from the April 27, 2011 tornadoes that ravaged some of our major service areas, we regret that we have no other option than to close our doors and cease operations," said the company. "We expect that your service will remain active through the end of January 2012 but we cannot guarantee the quality and availability of your service during this period."

While the tornadoes are indeed a valid reason for IBEC's troubles, BPL was plagued with two key problems from the start: It was known to cause interference, and utilities weren't exactly interested in competing with their pole-attached neighbors--the telcos and cable operators that already enjoy a duopoly on the broadband market.    

IBEC and its big brother partner IBM had a bullish outlook on BPL. Under the initial plan, the pair said they would invest $70 million to serve 340,000 homes in seven states. However, IBEC never came close to that due to ongoing deployment delays.

Perhaps IBEC should have seen the writing on the wall when Manassas, Va. closed its BPL network.

Initially run by COMTek, Manassas had similar high hopes with BPL. The Manassas City Council was told by the then-private powerline operator COMTek that the city could "expect $4.5 million in revenue from awarding a 10 year BPL franchise."

Of course, the city never came close to reaching that milestone. Instead, city leaders said the Manassas BPL network was bleeding $166,000 annually.

Even when Manassas abandoned its BPL network in April 2010 IBEC pressed ahead, maintaining that while it was a loss to the BPL cause, they had a better plan.

"It's a blow to BPL when something like this (the Manassas shutdown) happens," said Alyssa Clemsen Roberts, government affair coordinator for IBEC in a Connected Planet article at the time. "My biggest problem with it is everyone saying 'BPL is dead,' like we're all part of the same project. We're not dead, and what we do is not the same kind of project."

Already, some communities like Nelson County, Va., which was served by IBEC's network, have plans in place to build a hybrid wireless and fiber-based wireline broadband network. Ultimately, the county wants to build a fiber to the home (FTTH) network, but will use the hybrid network as an interim strategy to reach remote homes.

"IBEC will hurt us in the short term. In the long term we will replace them with our own wireless and our own wired network," said Joe Dan Johnson, Nelson County School Technology Director, in a WVIR-TV article.

Despite all of the failures of BPL as a last mile broadband alternative, powerline is proving it has a place in both home network and smart grid applications.

This week the leading powerline technology advocates--Home Plug Forum and the IEEE--reached major milestones.

HomePlug released the AV2 Specification that enhances the coverage of networking over powerline wires in homes. Meanwhile, the IEEE 1905.1 Working Group gave its approval of the Hybrid Networking (P1905.1) draft standard that can accommodate Wi-Fi, IEEE 802.3 for Ethernet, IEEE 1901 for Powerline and MoCA for Coaxial Cables.

Perhaps if there's one lesson the service provider industry can learn from the BPL failures, it's that technology always finds a way to reinvent itself in a setting where it's better suited for success.--Sean