When we got on the bus for the Duke Energy site visits described in the previous article, the only remaining seats were facing backwards. As we started on the ride to the first trial site, we noticed that the two men across from us were wearing shirts embroidered with a utility.net logo. We were intrigued by the name, and had never heard of the company, so we asked what it was. They said "We're in stealth mode, but you'll hear more about it this evening."
Indeed, the evening reception was sponsored by utility.net. After the party got under way, Cheryl Smith got up and introduced herself as utility.net's CEO, and talked about the company's goal: to help utilities roll out residential broadband in "unserved and underserved communities in the United States and around the world." She then introduced the two men we'd sat with the bus tour: Daniel Crespo-Dubie, Vice President network and technology operations, and Michael Keselman, Vice President and chief technology officer.
We had always been skeptical that BPL could be used for rural deployments, since the deployment costs seemed very high when the population density (expressed as homes per mile of power line) is low. So the next day we spent a while talking with Daniel and Michael, and learned about some technology breakthroughs pioneered by International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC). IBEC's COO, Steve Turner, was a speaker at the conference, and we heard more about their approach.
Later in the conference, Daniel and Michael mentioned that they were taking a potential customer to visit an IBEC deployment in rural Virginia, and invited us to come along. We agreed to change our plans and flew into Charlottesville rather than heading back home.
IBEC's Deployment In Rural Virginia
The next morning, we followed Daniel about forty miles south of Charlottesville to Colleen, VA, home of the Central Virginia Electric Cooperative. CVEC is a not-for-profit cooperative providing electricity to "nearly 32,000 member accounts in 14 Virginia counties."
In CVEC's parking lot, we were introduced to Scott Lee, IBEC's CEO. He told us that IBEC had its roots in two companies: PowerComm Systems, Inc. a company focused on developing technology for the BPL marketplace, where Steve Turner was CEO; and CybrTyme, a dial-up ISP serving rural communities, where Scott was president. They saw a strong need for broadband Internet services in the rural markets, and felt that neither cable nor DSL service was likely to be economically feasible except in the towns. PowerComm had developed and patented several key BPL innovations, and IBEC has licensed those from the inventor, Wayne Sanderson, formerly Steve's business partner.
We drove with Scott up the side of a mountain to a small house that IBEC uses for demonstrations. At the house, Scott introduced us to Brent Zitting, IBEC's VP of Engineering.
Inside the house, Brent demonstrated their system in operation, and showed us the Corinex Powerline Ethernet Adapter used to connect the outside access BPL service to an Ethernet network in the home.
Outside, we looked at the IBEC equipment in a box mounted to a pole. IBEC uses medium voltage equipment from Corinex and from Kaikom, a Korean company. Brent pointed out that all the equipment they install--including the Corinex home adapters--are managed devices and fully visible to their network management system. He said all these devices are based on chips from DS2 and that DS2 provides the software which enables them all to be part of a managed network.
Looking up, we could see the IBEC couplers connected to the power line. IBEC's patented coupler design is based on standard surge arresters. The two outer couplers (to the left and the right in the photo) pick up the signal from one section of the power line and regenerate it for the next section. The second coupler on the right picks up the signal for insertion on the low voltage line to the house.
IBEC and utility.net
Rural broadband has special requirements. Because population density is low, there are few homes passed per mile of powerline. Since BPL requires a repeater or regenerator every half mile or so, it's hard to pay off the capital investment in equipment.
IBEC says its solution features low costs for each regenerator, so that deployment makes economic sense even at low density. IBEC does not manufacture its own equipment; it buys standard DS-2 products from companies like Corinex and Kaikom, and has licensed its patented coupler design to companies that already make surge arresters and can provide couplers at low cost. All of IBEC's BPL equipment is remotely manageable, and it uses a central network operations center to manage all its utility customer networks.
IBEC has focused its sales efforts on serving rural electric cooperatives, and will continue to do so. utility.net believes that IBEC's technical approach makes sense for investor owned utilities as well, since many of them serve rural areas with little or no broadband coverage.
IBEC and utility.net are coordinating their approach to the rural broadband market. Both seek to provide broadband service to unserved and underserved markets--those where there is no broadband access, or only one provider. The companies told us they had a common investor, and viewed themselves as "sister companies."