Does the long-touted but rarely implemented broadband over power line (BPL) technology still have a pulse? Despite decades of attempts to roll out an information technology that would provide North American electric utilities with a new revenue stream by putting them in the Internet service provider (ISP) business, many of the projects have not worked well.

So far, the technology has foundered on technology, regulatory, and economic issues and failed to gain ground against phone company, cable, wireless, and satellite ISPs. But the technology may be opening its second act, thanks in part to a recent standards development.

In January an IEEE working group approved a baseline technical standard for BPL. The IEEE P1901 Working Group signed off on a 2,000-page specification to drive the technical aspects of BPL technology. Jean-Philippe Faure, chairman of the IEEE working group, said, “This is a major milestone in the development of a BPL standard. The approved proposals form the baseline content for the standard.”

BPL Makes Rural Inroads

One area where BPL seems well-positioned to compete with established ISPs is in wide open spaces.

Late last year, IBM and closely held International Broadband Electric Communications Inc. (IBEC) of Huntsville, Ala., signed a $9.6 million contract to deploy high-speed Internet service over power lines for 13 rural electric cooperatives in the South. IBM will install IBEC’s BPL technology for 13 co-ops in seven southeastern states. According to a joint press release (PDF), IBEC will provide the equipment and be the systems’ ISP.

The rural emphasis of the deal is understandable, as rural America (IBEC’s historical focus) is the least-served part of the country by conventional Internet technologies. IBEC CEO Scott Lee said, “Americans in rural areas of the country trail their urban and suburban counterparts in broadband availability. This capability will play a critical role in rural health, education, and economic development, while closing the digital divide that exists between well served and underserved America.”

Rebranding BPL

Another emerging market for BPL is grid modernization. Recently, there has been a major shift in emphasis in the BPL message. Now, more of the companies still in the BPL business are stressing so-called smart grid applications rather than Internet services.

For example, Current Group LLC, the Maryland-based company that has been in business since 2000 pushing its BPL technology, once said its gear would yield Internet access competition. In 2005, search engine behemoth Google made a major investment in Current, rumored to be in the $100 million range. According to analysts who follow Google, it wasn’t a good investment.

Today, although Current technology does provide BPL Internet service in some utility service territories, Current Group’s corporate site emphasizes the company’s involvement in using BPL for smart grid deployments such as the Xcel Energy’s Smart Grid City—Boulder, Colorado (see POWER, May 2008).

Last May, one of the most ambitious attempts to deliver broadband Internet over power lines failed. Current and DirecTV had hoped to roll out BPL to 2 million Dallas homes. But when that business model proved unsuccessful, Current sold its BPL equipment to Oncor, the electric distribution utility of TXU Corp. for $90 million. An Oncor spokesman told the Dallas Morning News, “Oncor is not in the telecommunications business, and it has no plans to get into the telecommunications business.” Rather, Oncor said it will try to use the communications capability of the equipment for smart grid applications, without specifying what those might be.

An earlier, ambitious attempt by Duke Energy’s Cinergy utility in Cincinnati to roll out BPL failed, as the utility was unable to compete effectively against incumbent ISPs, including local phone companies and cable TV providers. Since then, wireless Internet technology has entered the urban and suburban market in a big way, offering another low-cost connection to the Internet.

While the IBM-IBEC announcement stressed the sizzle—high-speed Internet connection for rural America—the news release also noted the potential usefulness of the technology for smart grid applications. Bill Moroney, CEO of the Utilities Telecom Council, a utility trade group long focused on telecommunications issues, said of the IBM-IBEC deal, “This is a key development in the growth and availability of high-speed Broadband over Power Line Internet services and widespread availability of critical SmartGrid applications in the United States.” And, indeed, the Smart Grid City example given above (though it involves Current rather than IBM) demonstrates that BPL is already being used in smart grid applications.

Robert Galvin, retired Motorola CEO, has been pushing BPL technology as the basis for the smart grid. One of the problems with the smart grid concept, created and advanced by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) for several years and adopted, without much detail, by the new Obama administration, is that no one seems to agree on just what it is, how it will operate, and what communications protocols will prevail (see POWER, June 2007), though the industry is getting closer on some issues, as demonstrated by the IEEE’s progress on a standard. The Boulder project may provide some additional clarity on the technical issues. Galvin’s effort suggests that his group believes that the conventional Internet TCP/IP protocol suite is the way to standardize smart grid applications.

Galvin has long had an interest in energy and energy technologies and served on the Department of Energy’s Energy Research Advisory Board during the Clinton administration. In 2005, in response to the massive eastern U.S. blackout of August 2003, the former Motorola exec formed the Galvin Electricity Institute to examine ways to prevent future cascading grid failures. He hired Kurt Yeager, former EPRI chief, who championed the smart grid concept at the electric utility research center in Palo Alto, Calif., to run the institute. Galvin and the Illinois Institute of Technology are currently working on a prototype of the “perfect grid” at the university, using two-way communications across the distribution system to control operations.

BPL’s Unanswered Questions

Using BPL technology for grid control, assuming it works, raises a series of thorny, and unresolved, regulatory and financial issues. When BPL’s goal was Internet access, the business model was straightforward: Customers would pay for access, defraying the considerable costs of installing BPL technology. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) cleared the way for that with a regulatory ruling in 2006, putting BPL in the same category of information services as phone and cable Internet access.

But if BPL is to become the backbone for the smart grid, who benefits and who pays? Does the capital price tag of the smart grid, which promises savings tomorrow but costs today, flow to customers or shareholders?

If BPL is no longer an Internet play, but a straight-up utility technology, similar to SCADA and other utility telecommunications technologies, who regulates it? At the federal level, are BPL costs reviewable by the FCC or the by Federal Energy Regulatory Commission? Where do the state regulatory agencies fit into the regulatory regime?

Clearly, to maximize its potential, whatever the smart grid is, it should be national in scope. But then there is the long-running conundrum of the line between interstate transmission and federal jurisdiction, and intra-state distribution and state regulation. Says a long-time Washington utility lawyer, “These questions are pertinent, and there are no answers in sight today.”

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER.