September 16, 2014 Jessica Sims

Power Line Broadband 101: An Overview

Broadband services are lucrative in and of themselves, but ancillary services that can ride on top of data such as digital cable and digital telephone services push broadband over the top.  Is it any wonder then why telecoms and cable companies, once organizations with exclusive offerings, are not competing with each other in markets across the country?  Even utility companies are trying to get a piece of the action, especially power grids.  After all, who would be better positioned to deliver broadband to consumers than the same organizations that offer then electricity?

Introducing BPL

BPL is an acronym for broadband over power lines, and is generic term used to describe using power lines for broadband communications.  What makes BPL so attractive from a technical standpoint is that it has the potential to deliver broadband access to areas that are not being serviced by telecoms or cable companies.  This leaves only wireless and satellite broadband systems to compete with, and that may be attractive to many in rural or sparsely populated regions.

How Fast is BPL?

At this stage, BPL systems destined for consumer usage offer speeds ranging from around 256 Kbps to approximately 3 Mbps depending on the underlying technology.  While these speeds are nothing compared to the latest generation VDSL, cable-broadband, and fiber optic-based solutions, they are certainly competitive with satellite broadband services.  There are certainly some arguments about whether or not existing wireless broadband holds an edge over BPL, but it all depends on how one looks at it.

If wireless broadband is not available in a given region, then BPL wins by default.  In cases where wireless broadband services are available, there may be limitations such as bandwidth caps or frequent weather conditions that would make BPL a better choice.  Of course, there are also plenty of times when BPL would be an inferior choice to wireless services, so it is very hard to definitively state which choice is superior overall.

How Does BPL Work?

If one were to envision a BPL network, it would start at a fiber-optic based hub that connects the power company’s data center to the Internet’s backbone.  From here data would be relayed, probably via fiber, to different substations, though there are some BPL options that would allow thick power lines to carry massive quantities of data too and from the main hub.

It is the thick wires that make BPL an attractive option in some regards.  The problem with metal wires used by DSL systems and even those by cable-based broadband networks tend to be very thin.  Thicker wires have greater tolerance for a wider range of frequencies and amplitudes as a general rule, but unfortunately for BPL systems, the fact is that the power regulating equipment around the country has very fine tolerances that negate much of this advantage.  Instead of being able to handle amplitudes and frequencies that would turn thinner copper wiring into slag, these thick wires are going under-utilized at this time, even when BPL data is being transferred over them.

The frequencies used by existing BPL solutions typically range in the low hundred kilohertz range, and is usually split at the coupler and bridge box that is essentially the street-cabinet of the power utility universe.  Couple and bridge boxes are found on electric poles and even on the ground throughout the country, and most neighborhoods have at least one.  Data typically arrives at these boxes after traveling a long distance from the utility substation and through a backhaul point that is the BPL equivalent of a DSLAM.

The Future of BPL

Companies such as Enikia and Ameren are working tirelessly to help develop and promote a new generation of power-station equipment that would help BPL become a serious possibility, but the work is ongoing.   The current effort to rebuild the nation’s power grid as well as the push for complete coast to coast broadband penetration would seem to bode well for the future of BPL, though there are some who would suggest that power line transmissions are not the greenest choice.  This is certainly a worthy argument, as fiber optics would seem to be the best way forward in terms of speed and environmental friendliness, but it may not be practical to bury fiber optic cables throughout the entire country.

It is hard to say exactly what the future of BPL is at this point, but there are major players backing BPL.  Additionally, the possibility of IPTV and digital telephone services delivered over BPL systems is enticing, and could cause a whole new round of price wars that would benefit consumers.  Even if BPL does not become a serious contender in the broadband arena, it will still be appreciated by those with few alternatives.

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