No. 6 top underreported story for 2008: Revamped technology brings a new option to broadband, both for smart devices and rural usersThe story: It's one of those technologies that have never been ready for prime time or even an understudy role. If someone could only get it to work, broadband-over-power-line (BPL) technology could become an alternative to DSL and cable and perhaps complement Wi-Fi in the networking space. Obstacles still remain, but the perennial also-ran may be ready for a starring role.
Key breakthroughs, notably by silicon vendor DS2, include a new generation of chips that has pushed transmission speeds to 200Mbps, with 400Mbps now being tested, compared with throughput of 13Mbps a decade ago, says Trip Chowdry, managing director of Global Equities Research. What's more, the chips are significantly cheaper.
And another recent innovation, called notching, lets the chips switch frequencies when meeting interference. This upgrade should quiet the fears of ham radio operators (who amazingly enough have still have significant clout) and others that BPL will cause problems for various radio services, says Ray Blair, IBM's head of advanced networking.
IBM is teaming with local utilities to supply broadband in rural areas not served by other technologies. Big Blue's partner, International Broadband Electric Communications, will have access to 340,000 homes in Alabama, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Because BPL essentially turns the electrical grid into an Internet-based network, every device attached to the grid will be able to communicate with other devices on it. This means BPL technology has the potential to develop a "smart grid," which could allow for such services as automated meter reading, real-time system monitoring, preventive maintenance and diagnostics, and outage detection and restoration.
Bullish as he is on the technology, Blair figures that latecomer BPL is more likely to supplement broadband over DSL and cable than to replace it. "Broadband service by any of the major utilities doesn't make sense. It will never be able to compete head on."
But in rural areas, where other broadband providers can't afford to build infrastructure, the technology has come far enough in the past few years to make the power-line model economical, he says.
Similarly, BPL won't replace Wi-Fi, but hotels that have found Wi-Fi spotty or those that want to cater to government guests who are forbidden to work on unwired connections could deploy BPL instead, says Blair. Cruise ships and buildings with asbestos or other problems that make running Ethernet impractical or Wi-Fi difficult are also target markets.
And if WiMax turns out to be a turkey, there's a good chance that BPL may get a second (or a third?) look from even urban broadband providers, says Chowdhry.
The bottom line: BPL doesn't have to take over the broadband world to become significant in the marketplace and a useful addition to IT's tool bag when other technologies don't fit the bill.