Broadband over powerline's pulse still beats

Broadband over powerline (BPL) service is just one of those technology trends that, just when you think it's dead, it rises once again.

Last week, IBM Global Financing established a financing agreement with DS2, a supplier of integrated chip technology for powerline vendor International Broadband Electric Communications' (IBEC) Broadband over Powerline Regenerating Unit (BRU) smart boxes.

While it would not reveal the amount of funding, IBM thinks that it will be able to help rural utilities in the South, East and Midwest close the broadband gap. Other than saying previously that it was working with the Midwest Energy Cooperative to deliver broadband over powerline to area residents and businesses throughout the seven counties the utility serves, details are scant at this point.   

That said, I will admit I was an early supporter of BPL and Power Line Carrier (PLC). As far back as 1999 when my early telecom mentor Dr. Paul Polishuk at Information Gatekeepers returned from a conference in Washington, D.C., raving about the topic, I was hooked.

Like others, I thought that broadband over powerline service could be a potential sound alternative for companies to leverage their already-ubiquitous powerlines to challenge the telco and cable broadband stranglehold. Fast forward to 2009 and, like it or not, cable and DSL still are the dominant broadband forms.

To the BPL community's credit, I have seen a number of trials that looked somewhat promising, at least on paper.

Amperion, which like other BPL vendors has now turned its attention to the Smart Grid and internal utilities communications trend, once showed me a trial with its parent American Electric Power (AEP) and two major IXCs that I can't reveal. You can fill in the blanks, but take it from me they were heavy hitters that were going to provide the necessary middle mile wholesale connections to the long distance and Internet.

Nonetheless, Big Blue and IBEC's heart is in the right place: the rural customer that has limited broadband options. Maybe the companies involved have been able to rectify the interference issues that plagued early BPL deployments, but before I celebrate, I would like to see a sizeable deployment.

Despite my skepticism about whether IBM and IBEC can actually make broadband over powerline a viable service in rural areas, it's clear that powerline will have a prominent place in both the internal utility network and in the home network.

While mainly seeing the deployments in Asia and Europe, powerline has found a sizeable niche in home networking. As of the end of 2008, the Home Plug Alliance reported that its members shipped more than 25 million PLC devices worldwide.

Along with home networking, utilities are finding BPL and PLC can be a viable technology for their smart grid and internal network monitoring activities.

In response, many, if not all of the early BPL vendors, including Ambient and Amperion, have refocused their PLC efforts on the utilities' internal needs by working on smart grid and internal utility communications.

And large utilities are responding to the powerline vendors' focus on smart grid.

Duke Energy, for example, announced it will deploy Ambient Communications X-series communications node, which can support a mix of any technology including powerline, in the next phase of its smart grid deployment.   

What this says to me is that powerline, like any technology, will find a way to reinvent itself and a purpose that it was not initially intended for.