‘Plug and play’ broadband over powerline
It’s hard to imagine a technology that’s attracted as much hype (and controversy) as powerline communication. But even as the options improve don’t expect the debate to end any time soon.
When Paul Miskimmon, a graphic designer, moved into his Sydney apartment he knew he wanted great broadband speeds as well as seamless networking between the rooms. But, as a renter, he didn’t want to invest in a lot of infrastructure that he would have to leave behind or wireless equipment that probably wouldn’t work that well given the thick brick walls.
“As a result, I went for powerline adaptors that I could just plug into the electricity outlets. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way now as I get great speeds, I can enjoy all my music, games and movies from any where in the flat, and when I leave I can take the whole thing with me.”
But, he says, getting his friends to follow his lead has proved troublesome.
“I’m not sure why, but no one seems to get the powerline option,” he says. “They either don’t understand how it works or they think it seems too good to be true.”
PLC is also known as broadband over powerline (BPL), powerline digital subscriber line (PDSL), mains communication, powerline telecom (PLT) or powerline networking (PLN) and, in essence, uses electrical wires to deliver connectivity between the net and a range of components or appliances (though saying that is a little like suggesting going to the moon is as easy as hopping onto a rocket).
PLC or BPL in reality describes a range of technologies that convert power to either low or high radio frequencies depending on signal transmission factors, can deliver a broad range of speeds and, in the past, have often come with their own proprietary specifications and standards.
BPL has also been defined as either ‘access’ BPL (delivering connectivity via the electricity grid over the ‘last mile’) and ‘in-home’ BPL, which lets you go online, stream video or music and network a range of devices all over a home’s existing AC network via wall sockets.
In large, it’s this promise of seemingly endless, cheap connectivity that has attracted so many converts to the PLC bandwagon; not only do it’s fans believe it can be a viable way access the web and a smart home, but that it’s a simple alternative to what many see as the high costs and uneven performance of the components, infrastructure and broadband plans of the telcos and technology companies.
Unfortunately, the information superhighway is rarely smooth and PLC technologies suffer from their own distinct set of problems. One of the most nagging issues is the interference that using power lines generates with other users of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum, such as emergency services or amateur radio operators. It has also been criticised for poor performance, erratic speeds, commercial challenges and the over-drive of its marketing.
Certainly trials of access BPL connectivity in Australia have been closed down entirely after a couple of years, often failing to deliver on the promise of performance and others in the face of the growing juggernauts of fibre, wireless or copper-based web delivery.
Even the newly-minted National Broadband Network appears to sideline PLC’s, while the Australian Communication & Media Authority (ACMA) continues to look at what, if any, regulatory measures it needs to take over BPL deployments here.
ACMA maintains a watching brief over BPL regulatory issues here and requires any access BPL deployments to be certified and monitored, while continuing to work with Standards Australia and the BPL industry to develop RF interference standards for devices.
Overseas, access BPL has had some powerful backers with the European Commission and the US Federal Communications Commission endorsing some powerline options, joined most recently by Brazil.
“The technology does work, but it’s been horrendously oversold,” Bruce Arnold an ITC analyst with Caslon Analytics, said.
“All the BPL trials here have been stinkers and I think you’ll really have to look to the home to see any real commercial application.”
Last year the International Telecommunication Union and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers announced standards for high-speed powerline communications within days of each other and big name companies like IBM, Sony, Mitsubishi, Panasonic and Sharp have also indicated a growing interest in powerline services or products.
The HomePlug Powerline Alliance says it has around 70 companies involved, the Universal Powerline Association (UPA) is backed by companies like Toshiba, Netgear and Logitech, while the HD-PLC is strongly linked to Panasonic in Japan and has now launched a magazine devoted to all things powerline.
The trickle of components and devices that once defined the market is quickly becoming a flood too. The recent Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas, for example, saw more powerline products on audio distribution through to home networking components of offer and endorsed by Home Plug, UPA or HD-PLC.
As well as straightforward Ethernet adaptors by companies like Netgear or Linksys more exotic options are also starting to appear. Pioneer, for one, announced ‘Music Tap’ two years ago for audio over home electricity wires, while Sharp’s 2007 prototype, the Network AQUOS, uses powerline modems to connect the TV and PC for high-quality audio, video and online content over Homeplug AV.
Speed and reliability have been big issues for in-home BPL in the past but that seems to be improving as equipment with 200Mbps and even 400Mbps come on the market. NetComm, an Australian manufacturer and supplier of data communication solutions, says it expects to be offering a 1Gbps adaptor here in the near future.
Even so, experts say that glitch-free performance at home isn’t guaranteed. Issues like how clean the electrical wiring is, how much noise is on the line, whether or not they are on the same circuit, and even if you have the same brand of adaptor or not around the house can be limiting factors.
Yumi Bondy from NetComm says, “We’ve been offering powerline adaptors for a long time and we have wondered why it hasn’t taken off sooner.
“The technology works really well and I believe that around half of all homes could use them, especially as homes start to require more bandwidth to stream high-definition movies and other big files around the house.
“But, there still seems a lot more education that has to happen with consumers as well as the big retailers.”
A quick ring around to some Australian distributors, retailers and home networking specialists seems to confirm that message, with nearly all saying they’ve had little experience with PLC technologies or any real customer demand.
One well-established retailer and home networking specialist said the technology “didn’t really work and that no one is asking for it”.
A comment echoed by another highly experienced home installer who said “PLC technologies have had bad publicity and we’ve had little experience with them to date, but we’d be happy to test them out.”
Either way, as telecommunications commentator Paul Budde pointed out, PLC technologies “are still emerging and have had problems, but that doesn’t mean they won’t find a place as an alternative in home networking solutions. They seem to be quite successful in that market and can be useful where other things like wireless don’t work.”