Powerline Telecommunications: Mission Impossible?

PLT: History of Developments and Debacles
PLT: History of Developments and Debacles
Fortnightly Magazine - July 1 2000
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PLT could allow energy companies to provide Internet, voice, and data via the grid, but technological hurdles and fierce competition remain obstacles.

Rumors of mysterious technology trials, talk of clandestine technology alliances, and an overall shroud of secrecy surrounds the mission among U.S. utilities to develop powerline telecommunications.

Powerline telecommunications, or PLT, would allow utilities to provide high-speed Internet, voice, and data services to customers of all classes via transmission and distribution lines. That would allow utility executives to fulfill their dreams of competing head on with telecommunications companies for services and investment dollars. Last, but certainly not least, PLT via the electric grid could help slake America's insatiable thirst for bandwidth.

But there is just one catch: No one has been able to make it work commercially. And because of notorious economic failures in the past, few utilities are even willing to admit they're involved in field testing the technology. Is PLT just a pipe dream?

PLT: History of Developments and Debacles

PLT has been around since the 1920s. Its primary use has been the protection of transmission lines; however, it has also been used for telemetry, remote system control, and voice communication, according to the United Telecom Council.

Commercial applications of PLT range from building control, automation, and monitoring to low-cost business security systems. Residential applications are limited to intercoms and, to a lesser extent, home security and automation. These slow, low-bandwidth applications use analog modulation techniques, according to a report by the UTC.

In the same way that executives today hope PLT will allow the provision of Internet services to rural communities where fiber is too expensive to lay, industry participants in the '20s saw PLT as a means of providing affordable telephone service to rural communities. Experts note, however, that even as breakthroughs have been made during the last decade, those successes in PLT have been followed by much-publicized economic failures.

Take for instance the effort by Nortel and United Utilities in the United Kingdom. Between 1995 and 1997, Dr. Paul Brown of Norweb Communications developed a means of overcoming interference on powerlines that made high-speed data transmission appear possible. On March 25, 1998, Nortel and United Utilities (the parent company of Norweb) formed a company called NOR.WEB DPL to further develop and market Brown's breakthrough, Digital PowerLine (DPL).

Although project trials in Manchester, England, confirmed that the DPL technology worked, problems arose when lampposts near the powerlines acted as antennae, picking up users' downloads and re-broadcasting the data as radio waves. Those radio waves interfered with the broadcasts of the British Broadcasting Corporation, as well as the Civil Aviation Authority and the British Government's electronic communications center.

"The British Parliament, many powerful constituencies, and the press eventually broke [NOR.WEB] up. Nortel made the mistake of taking on Parliament when they should have admitted it [was] an anomaly exhibited as part of the test trials," says one engineer in retrospect.

Last year, the venture closed its doors. At the time, a Nortel spokesperson said that although the company was able to prove the DPL technology, it was