Powerline communications (PLC) – also known as broadband over powerline (BPL) – a once and future cable industry foe, could also be an industry friend if cable plays its cards right. Cable, after all, needs a reliable and ubiquitous way to network its content around a home, and there’s nothing quite as omnipresent in a residence as electrical sockets.
First, of course, the cable guys must swallow their competitive juices and forget about the chest thumping about how PLC is another broadband pipe to the consumer home because it’s what’s in that home that matters.
"We can use that (outside network) infrastructure to deliver connectivity, whether it’s broadband access for Internet or something as simple as reading the meter on the side of the building," said Brian Donnelly, vice president of marketing and business development of Corinex and a spokesman for the Universal Powerline Association (UPA).
The important word is can. A hurricane can wreak havoc by traveling up the Atlantic, entering Delaware Bay and following the Delaware River until it reaches Philadelphia and messes with Comcast’s pretty new tower. It can; it probably won’t, and PLC probably won’t make much headway competing with cable’s broadband pipe.
"The connectivity over a utility’s power grid isn’t about offering broadband; in the United States it’s more about what they’re calling intelligent grid or smart grid applications like meter reading, load management, load shedding, self-healing of the grid … basically creating an intelligent grid that allows the utility to make decisions in real time for balancing the load, reducing costs and improving performance," said Donnelly. Not a space for cable While cable may want to get into the business of regulating home energy, it’s unlikely and best left to the power guys. Where PLC can – and there’s that word again – be a friend and ally is in the home network where cable faces competition from any number of sources. PLC has allegedly solved its biggest problem, noise that comes along with the electricity, and can now reliably deliver 200 Mbps of throughput over home wiring, said Donnelly.
"If there’s noise on the line, it may decrease the performance of the network, but because you have such a big pipe already, if you go from 200 megabits down to 100 megabits, you still have so much available bandwidth for video," he said.
Figuring even high-def video will not require more than 19.2 Mbps, there’s a pretty big pipe built in the walls of every residence to push around HBO and ESPN and CN8 and a little Internet and telephony. While tethered, that electrical lifeline still beats the data-lights out of wireless as a way to push around content.
"Wireless is not a particularly deterministic network," said Donnelly, pointing out that a bit of delay or lag in wireless is "not such a big deal" for computers, but makes a mess of TV viewing. Wireline has "much stronger jitter characteristics and has lower latency, which means it gets there a little faster," he promised.
The cable industry, of course, is handling the situation the way it always handles new technology it hasn’t developed: It’s dithering. It happened with cable-ready TV sets and remote controls and TiVo and heaven knows how many other things that use and abuse cable networks, and it could happen again if wireline home networking devices become readily available at the local store for a consumer audience that can’t wait for the cable or Verizon guy to step in and install a home network. The retail game "We’re a little bit new to the retail game, but you can find our products online at Best Buy and Circuit City and WalMart and Amazon and all those places, and you can find it in a few brick-and-mortar stores as well," said Donnelly, throwing a little cold water on cable’s hopes.
The telcos are interested. Bell Canada is buying Corinex gear, and the vendor is studying the international market for still more opportunities.
"The biggest IPTV players actually aren’t in North America right now; they’re in Europe. Telefonica in Spain has over a half-million IPTV customers, and they use Corinex technology for in-home connectivity. We haven’t broken so easily into AT&T and Verizon (who are becoming more cable than the cable guys), but they’re looking at the technology as well. They haven’t gone with the competitors; they haven’t gone with anybody in terms of the powerlines at this point in time," he said.
The power companies, of course, can’t be dismissed, despite their lack of expertise. It’s their pipe.
"Some of the utilities are looking at building this intelligent grid with leftover bandwidth on top they may sell to an existing ISP, but I don’t think too many of them are going to become ISPs themselves," he said. "Most of them are thinking there’s a small amount of revenue they can pick up by allowing an ISP to take some bandwidth off their networks."
It’s not something to be taken lightly – did a bulb go on there? Light-ly? – although that shouldn’t shock cable guys. DirecTV, always looking for something better and cheaper than satellite high-speed data (and that opens up everything under the sky), announced a wholesale agreement with Current Group to market a bundled package of DirecTV wireline broadband and VoIP in the Cincinnati and Dallas-Forth Worth markets where Current is building a network. The satellite giant hopes to get the service to its subscribers by the end of this year or early next.
Even as DirecTV tries to serve that niche, though, the biggest threat/opportunity facing the cable industry is the home network. Cable can either play nice with the powerline guys or compete. It’s an age-old dilemma. – Jim Barthold