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Broadband Over Power Lines Gets Ready For Prime Time

The promise of Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) is just too compelling to ignore: Internet services delivered by power utilities, bringing much-needed competition to the networking business, and connectivity to subscribers left out of the broadband revolution. And, with the Federal Communications Commission's approval of Internet power-line delivery last fall and a real product announced by Motorola last month, BPL seems ready for prime time.

Jim Valle, CEO of the BPL consulting firm Fiber Bridge Communications says the technology can be seen as "the third leg of a three-legged stool. It solves the unbundling issue with a commercial, rather than the regulatory solution of open access regulations," he says. "When you bring in BPL, it opens up the last mile to other carriers."

That's good news for a broadband-hungry market like the U.S. According to Valle, the last eighteen months have seen a veritable surge in BPL development, with pilot projects in Virginia and Missouri, and a slow, but enthusiastic early adoption curve. "In the last six months, the second generation of BPL has come out," Valle says. "Now it's starting to take off."

BPL has had something of a checkered history, and despite all the recent interest, it isn't exactly new technology. Valle notes that electrical utilities have been using the power grid to carry communications for decades. It has been used to transmit data from household consumption meters and to signal line problems. The difference is that these have been narrowband connections, used solely by the power companies themselves for system management.

Nortel and United Utilities developed a short-lived consumer data over power lines technology dubbed Norweb in the 1990s, but with persistent radio interference issues, they pulled the plug on it in 1999, citing low market potential. Nortel preferred to concentrate on broadband data development for more traditional carrier technologies.

Nevertheless, even with the renewed momentum of the last six moths, BPL still has a number of obstacle to overcome before it's ready for prime time, and it's not even clear whether it will become really common in North America. The main limitation in the U.S. is transformer density -- the number of homes or power users connected to each power transformer.

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