As we started researching the current state of BPL, we learned about two upcoming conferences and quickly decided to attend both. These conferences proved to be quite complementary.
UTC Telecom 2004
The United Telecom Council (UTC) is a telecommunications and IT association for utilities and energy companies. The United Power Line Council (UPLC) under UTC is "an alliance of electric utilities and technology companies working together to drive the development of broadband over power line (BPL) - broadband services over the existing distribution electrical grid and in-home electrical wiring." Most of the BPL technology companies are members of UPLC, as are many larger utilities.
UTC held its annual conference in Nashville in mid-May. It included nine parallel symposiums with one devoted to BPL.
David Shpigler, UTC's Director of Research, talked about the business case for BPL. He described several architectures used for BPL services based on different vendor's technologies and the design of the electric grids.
To paraphrase David's presentation, each of these BPL approaches is comprised of three pieces:
The business rationale for BPL is a combination of utility and retail applications. The retail applications include all the "traditional" and emerging broadband applications--ranging from high-speed data and VoIP to telemedicine and video conferencing--plus applications of particular interest to electrical utilities such as home energy management and appliance monitoring. The utility applications include meter reading, demand prediction, and outage localization. Some utilities believe they can justify BPL expenditures for utility applications alone, with consumer applications as an added value; others are primarily focused on added income from consumer applications with utility applications as an added benefit.
David presented three business models for utility participation in BPL:
Regulatory Issues - Interference
Bruce Franca, Deputy Chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology said the FCC's sees Access BPL as a way to provide "added competition in the broadband market" especially to "rural and underserved areas." It also sees BPL as providing an "effective management tool for utility distribution networks." The FCC regulates BPL because it has the potential to radiate signals and BPL must comply with the "non-interference guidelines" of the FCC's Part 15 rules for unlicensed services.
Radio amateurs have strongly complained that unlicensed BPL services interfere with the licensed ham bands, and have asked the FCC to delay deployment of BPL until these issues are resolved. In an effort to address interference concerns by hams and others, the FCC issued an NPRM earlier this year proposing specific rules for BPL, with specific measurement guidelines. The FCC feels that these rules will "remove regulatory uncertainty" and "promote development of Access BPL technology".
Brett Kilbourne and Prudence Parks presented the UTC/UPLC views on regulatory issues. They said the FCC and Congress are generally supportive of BPL especially for its potential to provide broadband services to rural and underserved communities. UTC/UPLC generally supports the FCC's positions in the current NPRM, but takes exception to the NPRM's proposal for a public database of BPL deployment, preferring restrictions on disclosures for competitive reasons.
John Kneuer presented the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) views on the interference debate-NTIA is an agency of the US Department of Commerce responsible for the government's use of spectrum and the formulation of telecommunications policy. He presented the results of an extensive NTIA study of BPL emissions in major trial markets. NTIA's conclusions as presented in its response to the FCC NPRM are that interference is real, and should be reduced by certain recommended techniques for measurement and mitigation. It recommended moving forward with BPL while restricting the use of certain frequency bands, limiting interference in other bands, and creating BPL "coordination areas" around the "most vulnerable radio receivers".
Al Richenbacher of PPL reported on the experience gained from its extensive BPL trial in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He said that PPL's BPL system now passes 6000 homes, and over more than a year they have received complaints from only four hams.
PPL has tested several different BPL technologies. All provide capabilities to avoid the use of ham frequencies--either by moving specific bands in the spectrum, and/or by "notching" to avoid the use of those bands. By using these techniques, PPL stopped interference on the ham bands. After PPL made these changes, two of the four hams said they were "pleased" by PPL's response to their complaints -- and three of the four signed up for the BPL trial!
He observed that an electrical utility deploying BPL could take one of two approaches to avoiding interference with ham bands: responding to complaints by moving or notching specific bands, or by notching out all of the amateur bands in advance. PPL has chosen the latter proactive approach and does not expect to receive any complaints.
PLCA 4th Annual Conference
The Power Line Communications Association (PLCA) is a trade association for utilities interested in offering BPL services. We attended the PLCA conference in Washington, DC in late April.
The conference featured presentations by utilities currently running BPL trials, with several moving toward commercial launch. The city of Manassas, Virginia, the site of one of these trials, is fairly close to Washington's Dulles Airport; the conference was held at a hotel near the airport.
City of Manassas
The first morning of the conference was devoted to three presentations covering many aspects of the Manassas project.
Alan Todd, the city's Director of Utilities, described the "big picture". Manassas is a municipal utility. It provides water, sewer, electric to all residents, and communications for all city departments. The city has about 15,000 electric meters and about 2000 transformers, so there are about 7.5 customers per transformer. 80% of the electrical distribution is underground.
The 18-month BPL pilot project provided high-speed Internet access to both residential and commercial customers using both overhead and underground wiring. Since the pilot was judged to be a success, the city has decided to move to city-wide BPL deployment to provide affordable broadband service to every citizen and business.
Todd said that Manassas has chosen to use a "developer model" in a strategic partnership with a franchisee; see the discussion of models in the above article on the UTC conference. The city "leverages its key strengths (network construction and system management) while outsourcing other parts (sales, service, content delivery)" to the franchisee. The city is now going through a bidding process to select the franchisee to provide these "other parts".
John Hewa, the Assistant Director, Electric Utility, gave a detailed description of the implementation planning and the integration of the BPL technology with the city's fiber infrastructure. He showed how the key components of the Main.net technology were deployed on both overhead and underground transformers.
Costa Apostolakis, COO of ZPLUG, a local company providing sales, service and content delivery during the trial, described the services model. The initial service is high-speed internet access at 300-500 Kbps symmetric; VoIP and video (via satellite) services are in planning for the rollout.
The second morning was an on-site visit to Manassas to see the service in action. Joe Marsilli, President and CEO of Main.net, described the system. We visited several locations to see the Main.net equipment installed on both overhead and underground transformers.
We visited an apartment complex where the BPL service is installed, and saw how Main.net equipment is installed in the meter room to provide service throughout the building.
See the following article for more on Main.net technology and the Manassas trial.
Alex Pardo, Director, Cinergy Ventures, described the BPL project in Cincinnati, Ohio. Cinergy, an investor-owned utility (IOU) has been a conducting a BPL trial based on technology from Current Technologies for "one year of operations through four seasons with over 100 customers." Pardo reported that "pilot test results were excellent." It received "high marks on customer satisfaction surveys" and "75% of customers expect to convert to commercial service." It also demonstrated "the 'Digital Utility' features for power quality monitoring and outage detection."
He described the BPL technology used in the pilot test, and said that Cinergy has formed a partnership with Current Communications Services, a sister company to Current Technologies. Through this partnership, Cinergy will deploy BPL throughout its service territory in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, starting with the "first large-scale rollout in the nation" in Greater Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati commercial rollout is now under way, and is expected to "pass 250K homes in three years." Broadband Internet access is offered now, VoIP is coming this summer, and video on demand is planned as "a future service."