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A Review of Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL) or Power Line Telecommunication (PLT)

Ewan Sutherland

The OECD has published a detailed report, Broadband over Powerlines: Developments and Policy Issues, on what was once considered a potentially interesting and disruptive technology that might have rivaled DSL. It notes that having largely failed in that, it is instead being applied to "smart grid" applications.

Extracted from the report are the "Main Points" below:

At first glance Broadband Power Line (BPL) technology seems to have a high potential to provide ubiquitous broadband access to households and businesses across a country. The fact that electricity is provided on a nationwide basis seemingly gives BPL an advantage. The commercialisation of BPL could also be important from a competition perspective providing a second or third wire to the home in competition with digital subscriber line technology and cable modem technology. It also has the potential to be a shared technology, given its use in developing smart grids and monitoring consumption of electric power to share costs. BPL also has unique features such as the possibility of in-home access for broadband from any power socket in the room without the need for further in-house wiring.

Thus, while BPL has all the features of a promising technology, it has not, as yet, fulfilled earlier expectations. The extremely slow growth in the number of BPL service providers, and customer base, and the fact that a number of BPL service providers have been withdrawing from the market concentrating instead on developing smart-grid technology to monitor energy consumption, seems to indicate that service providers face problems.

There are a number of technological and, to a lesser extent, regulatory issues which need to beovercome in order to facilitate the take-off of BPL technology in the market. The electrical grid provides a harsh environment for data transmission, issues regarding radio frequency interference are both technological and regulatory, and international standardisation is incomplete. BPL requires investment, in particular where power grids are old, and BPL also requires investment to send data over long distances.

Furthermore as broadband over DSL migrates to fibre and cable modem speeds increase as a result of new technology, the competitive environment facing BPL becomes more difficult.

In short, while there may be a potential for BPL to further competition in the broadband market, there is little evidence to indicate that this will take place soon and that it can be counted on to provide a competitive alternative in the near term to xDSL (or fibre to the home) and cable modem technologies. Nevertheless, a technology neutral policy would argue in favour of regulators ensuring that no unnecessary barriers are in place for the eventual commercial diffusion of this technology as well as ensuring that interference with other licensed wireless services is minimised.

By Ewan Sutherland, Telecommunications Policy Analyst
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