Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Plug in the Computer and Log-on at the Same Time, Broadband over Power Lines Coming Soon

Plug in the Computer and Log-on at the Same Time
Broadband over Power Lines Coming Soon (?)

Something I’m sure a lot of people don’t know about is BPL. What is BPL you say? Point proven. BPL is “Broadband over Power Lines. The idea of BPL is that you can plug your computer into any electrical outlet at home and have high-speed Internet immediately. This technology combines the radio, wireless networking, and modem technology to send data over power lines in speeds comparable to DSL and cable (between 500 kb and 300Mbps).

The big upside to having BPL is that rural areas, where access to high-speed Internet is not readily available, can have access to broadband service, simply by tweaking current power grids with specialized equipment. Having access to electricity gives access to broadband Internet! Imagine that.

Right now, there are two types of BPL service: In-house BPL and Access BPL. In-house BPL can network machines at home, like home appliances (i.e. light switches, televisions, sound systems, etc.) Access BPL will carry broadband Internet using power lines and allow power companies to electronically monitor power systems.

BPL would data through the current infrastructure of power lines, so new fiber-optic lines don’t have to be laid out by phone companies. The thing is, fiber-optic lines were very stable and could transmit trillions, yes with a “T”, of bytes of data a day without interfering with other types of transmissions. BPL is based on the concept of bundling radio frequency (RF) with AC (alternating current) to transfer data on the same lines. Electric companies have used this technology for years to monitor the performance of power grids. The infrastructures of these power grids consist of generators, substations, transformers, and everything in between that carries electricity into your home.

An issue with sending radio signals through alternating current is the “noise” of electricity. At high voltages, the “noise” is heard as a humming noise you are all familiar with. At high voltages of electricity spikes in frequency and BPL requires electrical power to maintain a separate frequency than it uses, or data can be damaged or completely lost during transmission. To avoid this problem, BPL providers would skip that part of the electrical infrastructure and move down to the medium-voltage power lines. As it travels through these medium-voltage lines, data can only go so far before degrading, so repeaters would have to be installed along the way to repeat the data in a new transmission for the next stretch of transmission. Once the electricity and data arrives at its destination, your home, it would have to be separated. Repeaters are used to separate the low-voltage data signals to bypass transformers, otherwise data can degrade. The final stretch of the transmission is the signal into your home. Some companies carry the signal directly into your home whereas other companies install wireless devices on poles.

Once inside your home, BPL modems specially designed for pulling data out of an electrical current are plugged into your electrical outlet and into your computer. The BPL modem is PnP, and is the size of a typical power adapter. The wire to your computer is an Ethernet cable. BPL modems also come in wireless models.

BPL technology has been slower to develop in North America. More equipment would have to be installed overall in North America. As said before, repeaters have to be installed on poles to separate the low-voltage data currents, but it’s not uncommon that one distribution transformer is connected to only one house, whereas 10 to 100 homes can be hooked up to the same transformers in Europe. An upside to this is that since bandwidth is limited, users can benefit from increased speeds since fewer homes are sharing the same connection. There are currently a few developers trying to work out the kinks of this technology, but there are issues that are slowing down approval by the FCC and IEEE.

BPL runs into FCC conflicts with radio-frequency emission limits. Since electrical cables are not shielded in shielded cables like on TV, cable TV, and telephone lines, they are clear of interference problems. Power lines have no shielding, and in many cases, the power line is a bare wire. This lack of shielding provides frequency interference. The interfering signals can disrupt air traffic control radios, police radios, and other short-wave radio transmissions. The amount of bandwidth a BPL system can provide CONSISTENTLY compared to cable and wireless is also in question.

If BPL does work out and become standardized, I can only imagine the possibilities of convenience at home. Hooking up your sound system and TV would be a cinch through your electrical “network.” You can sync your alarm clock, light switch, and coffee maker in the morning via broadband. The current citywide Wi-Fi Internet infrastructure being installed in some American cities would be obsolete, or welded into the infrastructure of BPL. Can all this work, or is it wishful thinking? I hope it works because, most importantly, more people that currently don’t have access to high-speed Internet will be able to connect, making our already small world an even smaller one.

*Cue music* It’s a small world after all.