When we were in the Washington area at the end of April, we also looked in at the BPL pilot test being run by Pepco with Current Technologies. Pepco, the electric utility serving Washington, DC and nearby Maryland, is running the trial in parts of the Potomac area in Maryland, not far from Washington. Many visitors, including FCC Chairman Michael Powell and other FCC commissioners, have seen this pilot and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
Current Technologies At the pilot demonstration home in Potomac, we met with Tom Willie, the President and COO of Current Technologies, part of the Current Communications Group; a sister company is a BPL service provider for utilities.
Current's approach is similar to Main.net's. The electrical grid is organized into cells. Each cell is connected through a concentrator to the network center using some form of backhaul, typically fiber or wireless. Tom said that each Current cell covers about 1 mile of linear electrical plant.
Current does not "pierce" the transformers, but instead uses a bridge device to carry signals around each transformer from the medium voltage to the low voltage side. Tom said the higher signal level from this approach usually avoids the need for repeaters on the low voltage side.
Current uses HomePlug to carry the BPL signals from the bridge device into subscriber homes. HomePlug adapters simply plug into any electrical outlet, and are available from many different vendors with a wide variety of computer interfaces including Ethernet, USB and Wi-Fi. He said these CPE devices now cost about $20 each, considerably less than the proprietary devices used by Main.net. A customer who wants to use BPL service in several rooms in the house can get multiple HomePlug adapters and plug them into outlets wherever they are needed.
Tom said that US electrical grids typically have anywhere from 4 to 20 homes per transformer and that Current's goal is for its system to be cost effective with one subscriber home per transformer. When we asked for an estimate of cost her home passed, he said the total cost varies substantially according the number of homes per transformer, the percentage of overhead to underground wiring, and the availability of backhaul facilities such as fiber. We believe that the deployed cost of a Current system would be roughly comparable to that of Main.net.
Pepco Potomac Trial
Tom described the Potomac trial and showed us the Current equipment installed on a pole near the demo house. There are currently 115 subscribers trialing the system. They expect to move these to paying customers this summer. PEPCO is an IOU and will likely find a service company to take on the active management of the system.
In the living room, Tom demonstrated the system simultaneously playing music using an Audiotron and playing a 1 Mbps-encoded movie. Tom believes that video will be an important BPL application; since Current uses HomePlug as the in-home delivery vehicle, its potential speed will increase as HomePlug AV becomes a reality.
On a PC in the bedroom of the demo home, Tom used the BPL service to help us map out the route to our next appointment, looking up the hotel we were heading to and finding the route to drive. He also demonstrated the Voice over IP service operating at the house.