Broadband Over Powerlines: The Technology Of The Perpetual Future…

from the just-keep-on-believin' dept

We’ve been hearing about the supposed wonders of “broadband over powerlines” (BPL) for many, many years. There were some reports in the mid-nineties about the technology, where it was made pretty clear that powerlines really couldn’t handle BPL at any serious scale, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of companies from trying over the years — nearly all of which have received tons of hype from the press and the FCC (who desperately wants another offering to hit the market, so they can claim that there’s real competition in broadband). Back in 1999, for example, we wrote about a company that claimed it was ready to offer exobit speeds over powerlines. Where are they now? Wish we knew, as most of us are surfing at megabits or kilobits. 2001 was supposed to be a big year for BPL too. That didn’t happen. 2003 saw the story pop up again. In 2004, FCC chair Michael Powell declared it “the great broadband hope,” when “great broadband joke” was much more accurate. Various hyped up trials were being shut down as failures. And on, and on and on again. Over at Broadband Reports, they note that every year, we’re told it’s the “year of BPL” and every year, it seems to go nowhere at all. Yet, each time the press picks up on the story as if it’s got a chance, without ever looking at why it’s had so many problems. In the meantime, we’ve recently been hearing about plans for broadband over gas lines. Perhaps that can be the “great broadband hope/joke” for the next decade.

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Comments on “Broadband Over Powerlines: The Technology Of The Perpetual Future…”

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Fred (user link) says:

Re: Re: BPL

The “Get broadband to the rural areas that don’t have cable, DSL, or wireless” argument is attractive, but won’t happen. BPL is in the HF spectrum (2-40 MHz or so) and the powerlines are pretty good antennas. Energy radiated will 1) Interfere with other licensed users of that spectrum; and 2) not arrive at the distant end of the power line.

This requires multiple repeaters to regenerate the signals along the way. The low density of subscribers, the long distances involved, and the high number of repeaters make BPL quite uneconomic for rural broadband delivery.

The FCC often proves the old adage:

“anything is possible if you don’t know what you’re doing”

Aaron says:

Farm and Ranch Folks

Earlier this year when I was in the midwest “farm” area, there was cell coverage almost everywhere – the problem is in the rural areas once a technology gets installed it often is many, many, many years until it is upgraded. For example, cell coverage was everywhere, it just wouldn’t work with my GSM phone … 😉

I would agree with AZ in that cell technology is much more practical because of it’s mobility factor but more importantly it has dual purpose – both traditional cellular voice communications and data communications with the same base station equipment.

If they can go through and name and post street signs for all those dirt farm roads, I’m sure they can get cellular coverage accomplished as well.

Chuck Lewis says:

Re: BPL and Ham Radio

It’s not just hams…BPL uses EVERYBODY’S frequencies, and does so without a license. The potential for BPL to interfere with licensed services, including Amateur (Ham) Radio, Public Service (Police, Fire, rescue, etc.) Aircraft, Shortwave broadcast, and others is real and has been evident in tests on deployed systems. That’s why so many BPL efforts have folded: FCC regulations clearly allow BPL as an unlicensed service ONLY if it does not interfere with licensed services; but most BPL implementations have been unable to prevent “leakage” of their signals from interfering. There is at least one developer’s BPL technology, however, that seems to have solved the interference issue. Even the hams are happy with it. The problem now is that so many of the existing or planned BPL trials have jumped in too soon and are locked in to using the “bad” approach. The hams have said that they’re not against BPL; just against BPL that fails to meet the FCC requirements.

Now, given that, an issue that remains is whether or not BPL in any form is a profitable approach. There is a lot of doubt at this point!

Parthian Macgregor says:

Re: BPL using ham radio frequencies

Hi Justin,

It’s not that all of these BPL systems use the actual ham frequencies, but that their systems radiate so much spurious emmissions that the multiple harmonics of their transmissions wipe out many of the ham radio frequencies many megahertz away. These emissions clearly violate FCC regulations.

One of the most notorious is the system run by the City of Manassas, Virginia. If you were to cause this same level of radio interference you would likely be arrested. But somehow the FCC seems to be letting the city get away with it despite a number of highly technically-sound observations performed by the ham radio community and the American Radio Relay League, indicating that the system is wildly out of compliance.

Of course, the slack the city is getting from the F.C.C. may be more due to the city’s slick propaganda campaign rather than complacency on the part of the FCC enforcement division. But they are not likely be allowed to continue for much longer. This particular story continues to evolve.

What makes the Manassas case look even worse is that there are a number of systems around the country that seem to work just fine without causing harmful interference to other radio services (including ham radio). The reluctance of Manassas to redeploy a better technology is a mystery.

And just as an aside for those who might think that the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, it is worth considering the fact that ham radio operators regularly swing into action in the midst of disasters for our mutual benefit, and do so for long periods of time, and without remuneration of any kind. And just recently amateur radio was recognized as an integral part of Homeland Security.

The truth is, hams have been protecting us for years, sending and recieving emergency and health-and-welfare “traffic” when no other form or system of communication was capable of getting through. Katrina is a recent example of their skill and dedication to our country. They have provided at their own expense and expertise thousands of overseas phone-patch connections so that deployed military could talk with their familes back home. They are always practicing their art, testing their capabilities, and upgrading their equipment. And above all, they remain vigilant.

Next time you see a car license plate that reads “Amateur Radio” on it, roll down your window and yell “Seventy Three!”, which means ‘Best Regards’ in ham parlance. You’re likely to get a big grin from a guy who would never feel like it’s owed him, but might like a high-five once in a while for his effort.


Garry Shapiro says:

Re: Justin Pakosky

BPL starts out using ALL frequencies from 2 to 80 MHz, including all ham bands from 80 through 6 meters. Thus it poses an interference threat to ALL services in that range, including SW broadcast, government and commercial in addition to amateur radio.

Proponents have attempted to mitigate interference by notching out sensitive areas of spectrum, e.g. ham bands, but have generally failed at this.

Recently, Motorola demonstrated a system that was much more successful at excluding sensitive spectrum, and even impressed testers at ARRL. But most ongoing tests continue to use prior, failed approaches, and beat heads fruitlessly against the same walls.

If the technology equaled the hype from FCC, vendors and power companies, there might be something to it, but it does not.

This is definitely an idea whose time has not come, and probably never will. The inherent incompatibility between RF transmission and the power distribution system is a tough nut.

B's Opinion Only (profile) says:


I have in my possession a WiMax modem which is being offered here in Canada for portable internet service. It gives (initial) speeds of 1.5 Mbit down and 256kbit up, which apparently is scalable to several times that.

The Wimax technology they use is reputed to cover an area 30km wide (18.6 mi) from each tower.

The builders of this network say that is how they will bring broadband to rural areas, and say they will be doing just that in the next 12 months.

We’ll see what happens.

Broadband over powerlines will be vaporware for a long time to come. There are technological hurdles to overcome that will cost much more than adding wimax to existing cel towers.

misanthropic humanist says:

radio propagation

Copper isn’t used for power lines AZ, it’s too soft – most power lines are aluminum alloys, but your point stands, the cost is higher.

Another problem not addressed is radiation (electromagnetic). When you start pumpng gigabits of data down a wire at a potential of 200kV it has a habit of radiating everywhere, the power lines become a giant radio antenna.

Of course the data would be encrypted, but the real problem is the nuicance this EMI causes to every other electronic device within range.

FemtoBeam (profile) says:

Re: radio propagation

The electromagnetic radiation from wireless communications, particularly some high powered WiMax and cell phone towers concentrate heavy metals and trap them inside of brain cells. This causes toxins to be released and can cause cancers. The studies done concerning autism being caused by the concentration of these heavy metals, such as mercury and uranium in the brains of children are being covered up and sabotaged. As these antennas proliferate and screen sizes increase, thereby edging out cable television due to the signal to noise ratios and needs for increased bandwidths, perhaps we will finally see the fiber to the home we have all been waiting for. Of course, which HDTV electronic manufacturer will you be indebted to? Who owns the rights of way leaseback agreements (usually 100 years) in your town? Will you still be able to think straight by then?

SimplyGimp says:


I remember back in the early 90s people talking about the possibility of transferring data over voltage lines. And now over 10 years later, someone MIGHT do something about it.

Don’t get your hopes up people. This seems pretty useless, especially considering how much the TelCos have spent putting the unused fiber in all these metro areas.

Weirdo says:

Check this out

I realize that this technology is called by the good people at tech dirt, something akin to vaporware. But they are testing it in Cincinnati Ohio, a city very close to me, I have seen it in action, but it’s still pending approval by the FCC, something about it interfering with ham, and short wave radio. Anyway this link shows the best information about it.

Rob says:

Better use for PL infrastructure?

Might be a better use of the infrastructure to just use the ubiquitious power line towers for WIMAX (802.16) or something similar if there are not interference problems. According to Wikipedia (I know, check your source) the practical (not touted) performance of line of sight 802.16 in a rural environment is 10Mbps symetrical with about a 10km range, and about the same bandwidth with about a 2km expected range for urban applications. Those towers are way up there so the line of sight should be pretty good for rural areas, and they also do not follow the roads so coverage may be fairly extensive. Just because you CAN scratch your nose with your foot doesn’t mean that its the best way to kill an itch. The railroads didn’t try to use the rails (as far as I know) to send signals, they just used another resource, their “right of way”. Horses for courses.

B's Opinion Only (profile) says:

BPL is a useful and viable way, for example, to wire an old hotel for in-room internet without running CAT5. In that situation, the BPL gear is on the ‘friendly’ side of the transformers.

Trying to route BPL through (or around) huge kilovolt switching stations is another story.

So… not vaporware, but also not the best way to scratch an itch. (Thanks Rob 🙂

Frank Coluccio says:

Powerless Over Powerline

The exobit powerline company referenced in the article is (was?) Media Fusion. It was the object of much derision for a while, and with reason. Its board on the Silicon Investor Forum is at: . It’s Web site has become somewhat of an oddity, too: ; see the chairman of the company testifying before Congress in 2000, explaining its “breakthough” technology and its promise, while also using a scare tactic that suggested that foreign entities could beat the US to the punch: Embarrassing.

And so it was.


Gary Yantis (user link) says:

BPL radio noise suppression - "guaranteed"

“Guaranteed” BPL radio noise suppression will be brought to you by the same politicians who dictated low flush toilets two years before the technology existed. They passed the law and toilet companies did their best but failed. I own a house built that year with four toilets that stop up daily.

Bill Clinton had all the toilets in the White House replaced with low flush toilets to great media applause. Then had them all quietly replaced with the old ones a few months later after Hillary had one too many bad experiences with the executive “throne” flooding the bedroom (true story). It took an executive order to get around the law. I’ve read it even though it is REALLY buried in the Clinton archives. The private living quarters of the White House were changed to public use (regular toilets allowed in commercial buildings) then changed back after the old toilets were replaced. One of the many things most people aren’t aware the Clintons did to keep busy during their eight years in the White House.

Or the congressional committee who suggested to Internet satellite providers that the transmission delay caused by signals being sent many thousands of miles back and forth to the satellite could be easily corrected by just setting the receiver so that it receives a signal before it is sent. Also a true story. The companies receiving this suggestion from elected officials had great difficulty writing answers that didn’t hint at the committee being dumber than a post. BPL is like a elephant designed by a committee. Except, in this case, it’s many politicians who have vested interests either of a political or of a financial nature.

Common sense and the laws of physics and professional engineering have nothing to do with BPL. It’s a way for politicians to gain votes from the ignorant and a way for others to extract “investment” money from (also) ignorant people. W.C. Fields continues to be proven right except it’s now about one every three seconds — not one every minute.

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