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New role for old powerlines
By Lia Timson
December 9, 2003

www.theage.com.au

It has been hailed as the solution to the digital divide and the ultimate in in-home networking, but powerline communications technology (PLC) has not yet captivated Australia, despite commercial roll-outs in Europe and dozens of trials in North and South America.A new report is urging the Federal Government to encourage its advancement.PLC, also known as broadband powerline (BPL), allows voice and data to be transmitted using overhead and underground electricity cables.The technology is not new. Power companies have transmitted signals between electricity towers, albeit in narrow band, for decades, and some even use it to remotely read customer meters and control off-peak hot-water systems. But only recently has it advanced enough to minimise noise interference and allow hardware vendors to fine-tune their offerings. The concept is simple and attractive: high-speed data is carried to and from the internet on electrical cables and delivered to users anywhere there is a power point. Energy companies like it because it realises further potential in their existing and pervasive infrastructure assets; internet service providers want it because they may be able to buy capacity from suppliers other than Telstra; and consumers, especially those in remote areas, stand to gain better access to services and pricing. As concluded by people attending a recent industry roundtable in Sydney organised by telecommunications analyst Paul Budde, PLC is now a reality and the technology usable. So why hasn't it happened yet?Juergen Bender, chief executive of German-based PLC consultancy Bender Information & Systemtechnology, prepared the report for the Government. He says Australia is falling behind the rest of the world."If Australia is not very active early next year, it will miss the opportunity because it will give Telstra more time to renew their network and grab more customers, making it harder for others to challenge them," he says.Bender stops short of accusing the Government of stalling the advancement of PLC until the remaining sale of Telstra, but says an alternative broadband roll-out, particularly in rural areas, would have a substantial impact on the telco.PLC has also encountered considerable resistance from regulators, with the Australian Communications Authority publishing a damning report on its viability just days after its representatives attended the Budde roundtable.The ACA's main reservations stemmed from the level of noise "radiation" produced by high volumes of data transmission over the cables, and the possible interference with other traditional system users, such as amateur radio operators.The ACA has since apologised for not fully disclosing its concerns at the forum and reassured participants it has not made any decisions regarding PLC. But regulators are not the only ones lukewarm about the possibilities. Andrew Chetham, principal analyst with Gartner, is pessimistic. "The biggest problem is handling the backhaul traffic from the transformers - that is from 240 volts - to higher voltage in the grid," he says. "The alternative would be to link the transformers to existing telco links (to take it across to other low-voltage segments), but that destroys the business model," Chetham says. "It doesn't look that promising."Regulators are concerned about lack of standards, plus privacy, security and service quality, given the possible unstable nature of the power supply. But Bender says these can also be solved.In summarising his report to the roundtable, Bender said the Australian grid had been inspected and proved suitable to provide PLC, adding: "Now narrowband and broadband PLC projects must be launched."He wants the Government to lead the way by conducting a trial on the Northern Territory power grid and to work with the ACA to deregulate the industry and develop standards."National standards have to be developed to ensure co-existence (of power utilities) and backbone interconnection is likely to be a major challenge (but) the data collected in the trial should enable utilities to build viable business cases."Paul Budde says PLC is a reality but players need to be more sophisticated in their approach. Geoff Fietz, manager telecommunication enterprises, Country Energy, agrees. He has overseen research into PLC since 2001."We have been exploring two vendors' equipment - one Australian and the other from overseas - for 18 months or so," Fietz says.Country Energy - born from the amalgamation of Great Southern Energy, Advance Power and NorthPower - covers 72 per cent of NSW.It has two uses for PLC: the ability to offer new broadband internet to rural communities and the promise of remotely monitoring its own power grid.It will conduct a trial in Armidale with Transgrid, the University of New England and the New England Smart Community Action Project in 2004. Eventually it may sell excess broadband capacity to others wanting to tap into its 180,000 kilometres of cables.
This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/12/08/1070732152234.html

 

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