July 25, 2021

Power line Internet still work in progress

Many Internet service providers in Maine currently offer high-speed Internet services – or what is known as broadband – via phone lines, cable television wires and satellite dishes.

But Broadband over Power Lines, or BPL, which involves using an electric power distribution grid to transmit Internet data back and forth over the same wires that bring electricity into people’s homes, is unavailable thus far in Maine.

The technology is not new, nor is it widely available nationwide. In fact, only a few thousand homes in the U.S. are currently subscribing to BPL services. All that a user needs to do is plug a computer modem into the nearest electrical outlet.

BPL technology should not be confused with power line adapters from companies such as Netgear, which can be used to move Internet signals around inside a single home. Such adapters cannot be used to establish the connection between the home and the Internet service provider.

Maine’s two largest electric power transmission and distribution companies – Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro Electric Co. – have been watching the evolution of BPL technology closely, but neither has any immediate plans to deploy BPL in its service areas.

Bangor Hydro started to look closely at BPL in 2003, according to Robert Bennett, the company’s chief operating officer. BPL attracted the company’s attention for a number of reasons, mostly because Bangor Hydro had already decided to adopt automated meter reading, or AMR, technology at about the same time, and there was an emerging view that the Bangor Hydro power distribution grid might lend itself to supporting additional services.

Approximately 100,000 out of the total of 115,000 residential and business customers served by Bangor Hydro today are remotely metered via AMR technology, an upgrade that cost Bangor Hydro about $14 million.

“Like BPL, AMR represents a form of communications over power lines. Virtually every residential customer has AMR installed at his or her residence today,” Bennett said during a recent interview. “AMR helps us to rapidly validate power outages on a site-specific basis whenever they occur and has the potential to enable customers to better control energy consumption.”

But providing broadband service involves going outside their core business, something both utilities are reluctant to do.

Bennett emphasized that Bangor Hydro is open to partnering with another company that could offer the right combination of end user equipment along with marketing and customer service support to provide BPL. In other words, Bangor Hydro has its door open when it comes to deploying BPL, although no potential BPL partners have been contacted, nor has anyone approached Bangor Hydro about BPL opportunities.

“The unserved or underserved broadband market in rural Maine in particular is where BPL has the best chance to succeed. BPL is essentially a rural broadband technology,” said Bennett. “BPL will just have a bit harder time being justified when a competitive offering is already in place. I really do not have an idea of what the deployment cost might be at this point.”

Thus far, large-scale deployments of BPL in the U.S. are rare. The city of Manassas, Va., enjoys BPL services, as do Cincinnati customers of Cinergy Corp., which recently merged with Duke Energy Corp. TXU Electric Delivery in northern Texas and Maryland-based Current Communications Group, Inc. – considered by many to be a pioneering firm in BPL technology – intend to transform TXU’s transmission grid into what is known as a “smart electricity grid” offering broadband service to a few million customers via BPL, becoming the nation’s largest BPL provider in the process.

“We have discussed going down to Texas to see what they are doing with BPL, although we have not made any firm plans to go yet,” Bennett said, adding that TXU and Bangor Hydro have a prior consulting relationship.

Besides TXU, Current Communications has attracted a number of high-profile equity partners of late, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Google Inc., the Hearst Corp. and Liberty Associated Partners LP, which is backed by John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp.

Central Maine Power, Maine’s largest distributor of electric power, is keeping an eye on BPL, too.

“We have been looking at BPL technology and opportunities for about a year to determine how BPL might benefit our customers and our power distribution system, but at this point we’re not ready to move ahead with deploying it,” said CMP spokesman John Carroll, who added that in early 2006, CMP considered initiating a pilot test of BPL.

“In some cases, BPL offers some benefits, but we are still not sure how BPL fits into our operations, both from a physical as well as an organizational standpoint. We want to focus on our core business,” Carroll said. “At the same time, as we look across the country, we detect a lot of caution with respect to BPL, and not a lot of momentum thus far.”

Besides the fact that many of CMP’s 600,000 customers already have some form of Internet service, let alone broadband, Carroll identifies the lack of a statewide fiber infrastructure as an important limiting factor.

BPL still requires a support infrastructure – fiber optic lines in this instance – which can move Internet traffic in the form of voice, video or data back and forth between nodes or hubs. BPL only serves as the final link from a hub to homes and commercial sites.

“With new satellite and wireless services making their presence known in rural areas in particular, broadband is becoming a crowded field. We are going to continue watching BPL with a wait-and-see attitude, but that could change as BPL technology evolves,” he said.

Other electric companies in Maine are looking at BPL as well. According to a spokesperson for Kennebunk Light and Power District, for example, while the company had planned a BPL field trial, financial difficulties facing its technology partner have delayed the trial run by at least two years.

“We have a role to play in the broadband market. We see BPL happening, if not in the next 5 years, then in the next 10 years. Of course, if some other breakthrough technology – satellite or wireless – bursts on the scene, this could have a profound impact instantly on BPL and the broadband playing field in general,” said Bangor Hydro’s Bennett.

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