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Broadband over power lines (BPL) came roaring into view, backed by lots of venture money, in 2004 after the FCC pushed the approach as a viable competitor to cable and DSL. But the idea of getting broadband by plugging a modem into your electrical outlet never made it into the mainstream, and the allure of BPL for home broadband has languished. But BPL players now see another market: utilities trying to manage electricity demand.
The BPL industry has mostly switched from pushing broadband to providing demand response systems to electric utilities. The head of corporate planning at Con Edison in New York once told me that BPL was a boon for the utility because it allowed the company to know when problems in the grid occurred, sometimes before they caused outages. Prior to BPL, the system’s only feedback came in the form of angry phone calls from customers.
But even as late as 2006, a study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimated that just 6 percent of electric meters were enabled to provide real-time, two-way communication capabilities. Thanks to stresses on the electric grid and a demand for more power, utility operators are clamoring for demand-response, or smart grid technologies, and the former BPL guys are happy to oblige. Companies such as Current Communications, Telkonet and BPL Global have revamped their web sites to reflect their new focus. Already this month, BPL has purchased two companies to broaden its demand response capabilities.
But just as it did in the home networking environment, BPL is once again competing against Wi-Fi. The power industry may prefer a Wi-Fi network because of its ability to continue transmitting information during a power outage. In Texas, Current is still rolling out new smart grid deployments that seem to perform as advertised, while the City of Burbank in Calif. went with Wi-Fi. So far, the switch to green tech has served BPL well, but it may end up fighting the same market adoption battles as it did in the home.