Imagine a world where you don"t have to dig up the earth to lay down co-axial cable lines, or where accessing the internet means plugging a small black box into a power outlet in your house. That world may be around the corner. Thanks to the Broadband over Power Lines (BPL), a technology, that threatens to turn the communications world upside down by bolstering broadband competition, lowering consumer prices and wiring rural India.
The key to broadband over power lines technology lies in a long established scientific fact that radio frequency (RF) energy can be bundled on the same line that carries electrical current. Since RF and electricity vibrate on different frequencies, there's not going to be any interference between the two. As such, data packets transmitted over RF frequencies are not overwhelmed or lost because of electrical current.
Model Link: Connecting To Net Over Powerlines
Non-intrusive equipments that convert electric sockets to broadband access points
bandwidth transfer rates across electrical grids led to huge advances. In India, the Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Allahabad, has successfully tested BPL. Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi plans to use BPL during the Commonwealth Games 2010 to capture the hairline differences in track and field events that would decide the winner.
However, its most significant undertaking -one that promises to revolutionise communications in the country much like the ubiquitous STD booths did more than a decade ago - is to wire rural India.
The technology could be a life-saver for schools, hospitals as well as internet kiosks which could relay invaluable information about crop prices and weather patterns.
Consequently, a BPL pilot project has been started in villages within 3-10 km of Amethi and Allahabad, all of which have power, but no telephone or internet connectivity. No company will lay down co-axial cable here because the business would be unsustainable, but the BPL solution would cost much less. "The cost of the wireless and this technology is almost the same; hence, both can be adopted according to the terrain;" says B.B. Bhatia, vice-president of Telecom Equipment Manufacturers Association (TEMA).
"It (BPL) is a proven technology and can be a boon for the rural parts of the country," says Ravinder, chief of engineering at Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC). "However, the economics of its commercial applications need to be established.”
Not everyone is so upbeat about BPL. Critics stress that talk of the technology has been around for years, with nothing to show for it. "BPL does not hold promise at a time when Wi- Fi and WiMax are on the prowl," says Joel Perlman, president and co-founder of Copal Partners, a London-based financial analytics and Research Company. "It has potential but has to survive strong competition from other technologies," agrees Vijay Madan, executive director at Centre for Development of Telematics. "Further, a number of technical issues need to be resolved."
Another charge levied against BPL is that power lines are great radiators of the frequencies that BPL occupies. Copper wires, co-axial cable, and fiber are all non-radiating, self-shielded mediums, but power lines act like natural antennae and can "lose" the BPL signal in the air. Consequently, it remains to be seen if the government will allow BPL to thrive if it inconveniences the military, air force or the aviation industry, all of which heavily use radio frequencies.
BPL also is a little dicey in developing countries such as India where the power situation is in shambles, say critics. When even metros such as Delhi and Mumbai suffer power outages for several hours a day, it is unlikely that too many people will opt for an internet connection that is solely reliant on fickle power transmission.
However, proponents of BPL argue that its benefits far outweigh its drawbacks. In many parts of the world, there is as much as a 30 per cent non-technical loss of power distribution in various areas of the power grid. The BPL project, however, is part of the "Intelligent Grid Network" which utilises advanced technology to remotely monitor power meters. Using a BPL backbone, a utility company is able to deploy a loss detection application that identifies when and where power is being lost.
Offices in corporate India could very quickly embrace a BPL solution despite its drawbacks because of its inherent advantages over Ethernets. Setting up Ethernet LANs involves the breaking of walls or the chiseling of multiple holes in order to snake network cables around the office. Installing external conduits on top of existing construction is often required. This process causes much disruption to an office environment. It mars the aesthetics of the interiors and generates unnecessary additional expenses.
Plug-and-play BPL networks have no such problems. "BPL uses existing electrical power cables or co-axial cables to create an IP network," says Maple Leaf"s Parimoo. "Hence, every power outlet in the network automatically becomes an access point for any IP device. This is not possible in an Ethernet LAN environment.”
Still, BPL has a long way to go to establish its reliability. But for countries such as India, whose rural populace has no access to affordable communication capabilities, BPL technology might just be the solution.