You can't kill BPL if it's already dead

12 Jan 2012

Broadband over powerline is dead. Again.

At least it is in the US, where BPL service provider International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) – backed by IBM – announced this week it was shutting down services in the rural markets where it operates, according to sister website FierceTelecom.

IBEC blamed the closure on the financial burden sustained from damage caused by tornadoes in April last year, but as FierceTelecom’s Sean Buckley observed:

While the tornadoes are indeed a valid reason for IBEC's troubles, BPL was plagued with two key problems from the start: It was known to cause interference, and utilities weren't exactly interested in competing with their pole-attached neighbors--the telcos and cable operators that already enjoy a duopoly on the broadband market.

Indeed, the US market is littered with the corpses of BPL services, some of which never got out of the trial stage. And of those that did, the most successful of the lot – a BPL network in Manassas, Virginia, initially run by COMTek – turned out its lights in April 2010, at which point tech sites like GigaOM and TechDirt declared BPL technology dead and gone and good riddance. It wasn’t quite dead, but IBEC was effectively the last man standing in the BPL sweepstakes.

And now it’s done.

Yet somehow – despite years lagging in development hell, being sidelined by the evolution of fiber and fixed/mobile wireless broadband technologies, and having never really gone anywhere despite dozens and dozens of trials in the US, Europe, Asia-Pacific and Africa – BPL still lives.

Granted, it lives in mutated form thanks to powerline technology still being developed and incorporated into things like home networking and smart grids. (Indeed, the HomePlug Alliance and the IEEE issued new specification announcements for both this week.)

But BPL also still survives as a residential access technology right here in Asia – Philippines incumbent PLDT and Manila Electric Co (Meralco) are currently testing BPL for a planned broadband access service for the 4.5 million customers connected to the Meralco grid.

What is it about BPL that keeps it going?

Possibly the original concept of BPL (electricity cables connecting homes to the power grid can be used as broadband access pipes to compete against the copper loop DSL monopolies!) is just one of those things that sounds so good on paper and works well enough in demos that some companies are still willing to give it a shot.

On the other hand, PLDT and Meralco been planning their BPL service since 2009, and despite plans to finish testing at the end of 2011, they’ve reportedly extended the test period into this year due to (wait for it) interference concerns. Even if the service goes commercial … well, see above.

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