Has Broadband over Power Lines Finally Made it?

TXU just announced that it is spending $150 mm over 10 years to roll-out power line carriage or BPL (broadband over power lines) – delivery of broadband internet access of powerlines. TXU Article. This a major win for cleantech investors, and could add a new player to the crowded world of highspeed internet access.
The technology behind this roll-out is provided by privately held Current Communications, www.currentgroup.com, backed by investors including Cinergy, EnerTech Capital, Goldman Sachs, Google, The Hearst Corporation, and Liberty Associated Partners.
The idea of delivering broadband access over power lines has been around for years. It has generally been one of those technologies that has “lots of potential, and always will have lots of potential.” Code for never going to actually make it.
The big knocks technically on BPL are these:
  • Getting quality over the powerlines tends to be a trickier problem than at first blush, so delivering the higher level speeds (and voice over IP) can be problematic.
  • The electric transmission “pipe” delivers into the last mile, we have power lines going to every home, but the technology typically requires “routers” of a sort, to get around things like transformers. In case you missed it, the US has A LOT of transformers. And there are typically lots of those things right before the our houses, so the last mile becomes costlier than expected.

That being said, these are engineering challenges that companies like Current have been working hard to solve.

But perhaps the real challenge is that the window for powerline carriage is shrinking. The big advantage is obvious, if you can make it work well, BPL allows electric utilities to deliver data and communications services over a massive already in place infrastructure, possibly substantially reducing costs. However as cable, DSL, satellite and wireless broadband make bigger and bigger inroads, reduce costs, and gain market share, the window for BPL to make its mark will get smaller and smaller. If BPL is to become a major player in the broadband world, it needs to get some big wins on the board.

Personally, I would love to see BPL roll out and put more pressure on telecom providers. So keep your fingers crossed.

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