Web extra: Broadband over power lines not suited for rural areas

Broadband-over-power lines (BPL) technology, which transmits radio frequency waves via electrical lines to deliver high-speed Internet service, works exceptionally well, but might not be a panacea for rural or remote places, a technology expert said.

Alan Shark, executive director of Public Technology Institute, the technology arm of several national associations of cities and counties, said the recent deployment of BPL across Manassas, Va., provides residents and businesses there a third affordable choice beyond DSL and cable service.

He said government agencies can use the new technology to do the following: develop certain applications they currently cannot make, such as pinpointing outages across their electrical grid; get centralized control of their traffic signals; operate video surveillance systems; and develop Wi-Fi hotspots in certain areas, among other things.

However, Shark, who has previously served as executive director of the Rural Broadband Coalition and president and chief executive officer of the Power Line Communications Association, said BPL might not be the answer to providing Internet service to rural or remote areas where traditional telecommunications providers have been reluctant to make investments. He said BPL is basically touted as a last half-mile solution.

Shark said you need repeaters along the electrical conduit every few hundred feet so the service isn’t degraded, but that might be too expensive a proposition for BPL providers. He said there might be hope for areas where there is a cluster of homes or some density. He also said newer technology that reconstitutes the signal for its entire trip is available, but might also still be too expensive.

Walter Adams, a vice president of new technology at Chantilly, Va.-based Communication Technologies, which is providing BPL service in Manassas, said there would be a degradation of service. “But it’s a question of what kind of service is good enough to someone who has no service,” he said.

Even if you start at 20 to 30 megabits/sec and the speed decreases to 300 to 500 kilobits/sec, customers might still benefit, he said. Otherwise, they may have to pay a lot more for satellite service.

He said the picture is getting better every day, but no mass market economy in terms of BPL equipment and customers exists yet. But Communication Technologies is in conversations with nine other utility companies nationwide that could potentially provide BPL access to several million customers.

Adams and Shark also said that this industry lacks standards, and many vendors are deploying or testing their own proprietary solutions. Shark said the nonprofit Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers is working on a standard, but it could also happen through market dominance by one vendor that breaks out of the gate and deploys it everywhere.

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