BPL Shows Promise, but Still Faces Challenges

Steven Brown, editor in chief

This month’s first feature article (pages 14-19) gives an overview of broadband over power line (BPL) technology-a technology that we’ve probably been remiss in not covering more lately. Interest in BPL has been rising rapidly the last year-and-a-half to two years as quite a number of utilities have conducted test deployments and a small handful have even rolled out BPL as a commercial offering to customers. BPL has also become a hot topic at industry trade shows, with several recent conferences devoted entirely to the technology.

As you’ll read in our BPL article, the technical challenge of delivering data at high speeds over power lines have been overcome for the most part. The challenge that remains is in justifying the business case for BPL, and that may prove to be the more difficult challenge.

Given the industry’s current back-to-basics mind-set, a “non-traditional” offering like BPL is going to be hard to push past most boards of directors-particularly when that non-traditional offering is one that might be perceived as setting utilities up to compete against telcos, cable companies and ISPs.

For BPL to gain wide acceptance, utility companies need to realize two things: one, that implementation of BPL doesn’t suddenly turn the local power and light company into AOL, and, two, that BPL has a great deal of value beyond revenue generation.

On the first point, utilities need to understand that implementing BPL doesn’t mean they have to become Internet service providers. In most of the early BPL implementations, utilities are pursuing a business model in which the utility builds the network and a third-party serves end users. Going forward, this appears to be the most sound business model for utilities to consider-as opposed to a model in which the utility would build, operate and maintain the network, and act as the Internet service provider to customers.

When Cinergy was ready to roll out BPL as a commercial offering to customers, it turned to BPL vendor, Current Communications, for help. It’s likely that we’ll see more partnerships like this in the coming years.

On the second point, utilities should consider that BPL is more than just another medium through which broadband data can be delivered to customers. It can also be a communications medium for a number of utility applications. The City of Manassas is pioneering this aspect of BPL, using its city-wide BPL network for transformer and customer-level outage notification, demand side management, automatic meter reading, security video surveillance and traffic signal automation. Cinergy also has plans to one day use its BPL network for a number of utility applications, including automated outage detection and restoration confirmation, remote monitoring and operation of switches and transformers, remote disconnect of electric service, demand side management programs and automatic meter reading.

These applications may be where BPL’s true value lies, and they should make it easier for utilities to build the BPL business case. But, before utility applications can truly benefit from BPL, at least two things need to happen. First, BPL needs to achieve broader penetration. For many of the aforementioned utility applications-AMR, for instance-to work well, BPL will need to achieve something close to 100 percent penetration within a utility’s territory. Second, utility automation vendors need to embrace BPL and begin integrating it into the systems they sell.

To put it succinctly, BPL has come a long way in just the last few years, but much still has to happen before BPL can reach its potential as a powerful communications medium for utility applications. 

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