Power Line Broadband Coming

January 21, 2005
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GRAND LEDGE — Michigan's first deployment of an emerging broadband Internet technology will begin this spring when Consumers Energy rolls out a pilot program offering high-speed Internet access through its electrical infrastructure.

"Broadband over power line (BPL) is used elsewhere in the world and is being tested elsewhere in the country," said Dan Bishop, Consumers Energy's corporate public information director.

"We want to evaluate it as an economic tool to provide competitive broadband options to Michigan communities and to determine the potential for utility applications to help us in terms of electric outage management or critical equipment monitoring."

The utility has granted right-of-way to Nyack, N.Y.-based The Shpigler Group to bring the broadband option to about 10,000 customers in Grand Ledge in EatonCounty

Already having a longstanding relationship with Consumers Energy offering other infrastructure services, Shpigler Group President David Shpigler has become a leading expert on the subject, speaking at conferences and seminars nationwide. Contracted to develop a pilot within the Consumers footprint, Shpigler chose Grand Ledge for its proximity to Lansing and the capital's regulators and legislators, as well as its infrastructure and service resources.

A second Michigan community yet to be selected will host a second pilot, and if successful, BPL could be expanded statewide.

"We're hoping to demonstrate that broadband over power line is a feasible alternative for both businesses and residents of the communities it will serve for broadband access," Shpigler said. "And we're not treating it as a pilot. We're looking at it as the first stage of a commercial rollout."

Shpigler explained that customers in Grand Ledge will initially be offered high-speed Internet — likely in the 1 to 3 MBps range — with different levels of service matching the customer's needs. He plans to roll out a VoIP service shortly thereafter and develop other applications as well.

Meanwhile, Shpigler's firm will test access technologies that could allow the utility automated distribution functions and better intelligence across its distribution network.

"The advantage that BPL has is that unlike a wireless system or a fiber-based system or some other technology, it, by definition, is exactly where you need to be to translate the communications they need to put in place," Shpigler said. "So there is a natural opportunity to leverage that synergy as we build this network. We're going to be working with Consumers Energy to see what technology will be reasonable to utilize over a long period of time."

Fundamentally not different from broadband by coaxial cable or copper wire DSL phone lines, BPL transmits a second data signal overtop or alongside of an existing transmission service. In the case of BPL, the 60-hertz electrical signal and 1- to 30-megahertz Internet radio signal don't interfere with each other.

Early deployments have seen problems transmitting through electrical transformers. Shpigler is currently evaluating technologies, each with different methods of overcoming that hurdle. Most propose coupling around the transformer, while one promising technology opts to transmit through it.

Other infrastructure upgrades could include repeater boxes on the electrical poles and on the meters that run into homes.

Theoretically, once the system is in place, a receiver box could be plugged into any outlet in the home or business to obtain Internet connectivity. Further applications include using the building's internal lines to create a local area network, or even controlling a home's electrical appliances to create a "smart home."

"We're obviously very interested in the technology," said Laura Chappelle, a commissioner and former chair of the Michigan Public Service Commission. "You probably won't meet a regulator that tells you they thoroughly understand the technology, but the biggest value to regulators, bar none, is that this is a third wire into the home."

Chappelle chairs a task force assigned to investigate BPL for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in partnership with the FCC.

"We've witnessed in the past few years the telecom issues with fights with competitive providers," she explained. "Even when those competitive providers put in their own facilities, they always have to rely on the incumbent for that last mile. The beauty of BPL is that it is an alternate last mile connection."

Chappelle also has been impressed by BPL's potential for internal utility uses, including homeland security, planning purposes and system problems.

"There are too many what-ifs," said Dirk Koning, executive director of Grand Rapids' CommunityMediaCenter and himself a renowned expert on broadband Internet. "The pilot program is a good way to start. I'm sure (Consumers) will see internal value. It makes perfect sense for things like meter readings. But I'm not convinced that some of the interference factors around transformers can be cured quickly."

Koning said that if he were to rank the available technologies on their merits, he would today put BPL at the bottom of the list.

"When it's really good it's really good, and when it's really bad it's really bad," Koning said. "…There are inherent problems when you're talking about moving packets of data on the same infrastructure that was designed to handle vast amounts of electricity."

Koning, who represents no industry interests, explained that the evolving infrastructure of wireless Internet access makes it the best choice for "last mile" deployments. However, there are some scenarios — such as thick, solid-walled buildings — when BPL might be a sensible alternative.

This past fall, the FCC opened the door for BPL deployments with an adoption of rules and standards in an Oct. 15 Report and Order.

In other parts of the nation, Cinergy Corp. and Current Communications Group LLC together plan to offer BPL service to 250,000 homes in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky within three years; Idaho's IDACORP intends to wholesale 4.5 MBps service to 2,500 homes; and Progress Energy, through EarthLink, is offering the service to 500 homes in North Carolina

The only test up and running to date is in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where about 20 businesses are using BPL service in a program that the local utility hopes to roll out soon to residential customers.

Last year, Atlanta-based research firm Chartwell Inc. found that one-third of electrical utilities reported using, planning or considering BPL. 

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