Broadband Over Power Lines

I’m not all that familiar with this technology, sometimes referred to as BPL. The basic idea seems pretty sound: High-speed internet access over power lines, bringing the information superhighway (how long has it been since someone used that term?) into every home in the nation.

Does it really work? St. Louis-based Ameren is already testing it.

The Ameren test works like this: The power lines that deliver electricity to homes are equipped with a device that enables data communications to travel over those lines. A consumer could connect to the Internet by plugging a personal computer into a power line communications modem, which plugs into the electrical socket. Power line modems, which already are available in stores for less than $70, are used in home computer networks that use electric wiring.

Supporters of the new power line technology say it is increasingly viable since nearly every building has a plug in it, plus it would make every electrical outlet an always-on Web connection and no special wiring is needed.

Intriguing, to be sure. But how successful have those home electrical wiring networks been? One way to tell is to look at the shelves in your local Best Buy. The store I frequent does carry a couple of items, but they’re shoved in the corner, overwhelmed by racks and racks of ethernet and wireless gear. (Of course, they also carried exactly two video cards, but at least they had shelf space allocated for many other models.)

There is a very big discrepancy between the wired and the unwired. And even where I live, in a suburbish-like metropolitan area, I only have two options for DSL and no options for cable internet. The satellite broadband option is far from perfect and overpriced, but it’s the only alternative to dial-up available for most of America’s landmass.

The internet, still really in its infancy, has the potential to truly alter America. Look at how much has changed already. But it can only do so, at least do so well, if everyone can log on.

With power lines already strung everywhere, and nearly every room in every house equipped with an outlet (or six), this could be revolutionary. A great deal of the infrastructure is already in place. Competition would be increased.

A major hurdle seems to be claims from the ham radio operators that broadband over power lines interferes with short-wave and emergency response frequencies.

Most BPL vendors use devices called repeaters to amplify and clean up the data signal carried on power lines, and those devices, as well as BPL modems, emit frequencies in the same range as radios used by ham radio operators and some emergency responders, according to the ARRL. Some BPL vendors are experimenting with devices that use microwave signals, and the ARRL says those devices would not interfere with ham radios.

But Current Technologies LLC, which offers BPL service in the Cincinnati and Rockville, Maryland, areas, can’t find interference caused by its system, said Jay Birnbaum, the company’s vice president and general counsel. Current Technologies uses a technology standard called HomePlug, designed to not interfere with other radio signals.

“(Interference) just doesn’t exist,” Birnbaum said. “They based a lot of their assumptions on outdated noise flow analysis.”

So who’s got it right? Who knows?

But if this technology truly works and is cost-effective, I think that it deserves a chance. All of America should have an opportunity to access the web.

Besides, MO needs more readers.


  1. I think it’s been in use in Germany for a couple of years, vaguely recall an article giving mixed reviews. But if satellite and dial-up are your only other options…

  2. The BPL stuff by HomePlug does not produce much interference, however, most vendors say that Homeplug really doesn’t work, so they don’t use it or reccomend it. BPL vendors who have installed systems that work well also generated a lot of interference. So, what does it matter if BPL interferes with some hobbyists and their ham radio? Ask the people in Florida, the Red Cross, and all the Emergency centers who depended upon Ham Radio operators to communicate with the rest of the world during the last four hurricances. We don’t know how many lives were saved by Ham Radio, but thousands of lives were made better by it, getting emergency services to the right place much sooner than would have happened without ‘Ham Radio’. Trash the HF spectrum and it really doesn’t matter until a natural disaster flattens all those cell phone and public service radio towers, and kills the internet. Only Ham Radio operators can talk anywhere in the world from their vehicles or on a car battery and a 100′ piece of wire 10′ off the ground. But that’s a personal viewpoint.

  3. it is now March 21st and Mr. Birnbaum continues to deny that BPL has any potential for interference. ‘It just doesn’t exist.’ Mr Birnbaum is wrong. Further, his touting of a recent FCC visit to test for interference in NY can only be described as lacking – both in professionalism and engineering quality.