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Santa Clara electrical utility buys MetroFi's SkyPilot Wi-Fi nodes: The Silicon Valley Power (SVP) Meter Connect program will use the wireless backbone for automatic meter infrastructure (AMI) as part of a program to switch to smart meters and provide demand-based pricing and response for customers. They'll start with a pilot with a couple thousand smart meters, and eventually replace 45,000 residential and 6,000 business meters. Meters and the back-end systems are out for bid.
The current bill for providing American infrastructure rebuilding includes $4.5b in smart-grid spending, and utilities will be vying for hunks of this to pay or subsidize infrastructure updates. The money is well spent. The smarter the grid, the less power people and businesses use at peak times (through higher prices for peak power or incentives for conservation), and the less idle off-peak power plants have to be in place.
Broadband over powerline (BPL) is always next year's technology; now it's never. Is never soon enough for you? For about the last 13 years, BPL was the going to be the third pipe into the home, supplementing the two incumbent wireline offerings of DSL and cable, which had developed into monopoly or duopoly controls most places in the world. Two years ago, with favorable FCC and upcoming EC decisions on BPL either released or about to happen, BPL seemed about to come into its own. I wrote a positive piece for The Economist based in large part on an enormous deployment that was contracted and underway in Texas, and a contract that had just been signed in France. These two events seemed like they would catalyze BPL.
About 18 months later, the Current Communicatins and TXU (now Oncor) Electric Delivery deal, which was expected to pass 2m homes by the end of 2008, is over, with Oncor purchasing the telecommunications network for $90m a few days ago. Oncor will use just the smart grid features that allow dramatically improved network monitoring--which is a well-understood aspect of data over powerlines, dating to much slower and primitive networks. The Dallas Morning News reports that just 64,000 homes were wired for BPL so far, and that Oncor will not offer Internet access. Oncor had agreed in 2006 to pay $150m for smart-grid features.
Google was a Current investor, which gave more credence to their plans in 2006. The company had already rolled out some smaller markets, overcome equipment problems, and had a positive relationship with the ARRL, the amateur radio society, in resolving interference issues. Hams have been the biggest complaintants with the FCC over BPL because hams are primary and secondary licensed users in the bands they use, while BPL is an unlicensed use.
The French deployment by SIPPEREC, a utility that manages power for the suburbs of Paris, stated that 1.5m homes would eventually be passed with BPL service, but no information has been released since Feb. 2007 about the project, which makes it likely that it simply didn't happen.
Even when I was researching the Economist piece, I was troubled by the many European deployments that were announced, went into trials, and then disappeared without a trace. Still, there were some active projects in Spain, Switzerland, and Ireland, and the rollouts in France and Texas seemed both committed (contracts were signed) and imminent. But the laws of physics always win, and I can only think that BPL equipment from whatever vendor simply cannot deliver results that work within budget and reliably enough to make network deployment for broadband make any sense.
The FCC's 2006 order that overruled a number of ARRL objectives stated, essentially, that interference was okay even with licensed purposes as long as it was within tightly controlled parameters. Part of the "BPL is dead" argument I make today stems from an appeals court decision in late April which affirms the FCC licensed/unlicensed approach, but which requires the agency to re-evaluate its information about interference. The FCC failed to disclose fully information from studies it relied on in setting rules, which violated public process. The ARRL wrote up the appeals decision on their site, and notes that a study in the UK that was fully released showed a much lower threshold would be needed.
The agency's need to redo some of its work, a potential shift of power to Democrats on the commission starting 20-Jan-2009, and the fact that other work shows the rules were established incorrectly could result in restrictions on BPL that make it even less likely to be rolled out. [Initial links via DSL Reports]
The folks at Burbank Water and Power are planning a Wi-Fi network that won't resemble any city-wide network built to date: Fred Fletcher, the assistant general manager for the utility, says that their primary concerns are conserving power in order to achieve long-term goals of shifting electrical generation to sources that produce fewer greenhouse gases. They believe Wi-Fi is the ideal mechanism to achieve that goal. They're talking publicly about their plan for the first time today at the MuniWireless conference today, a summit aptly titled "Industry at a Crossroads." (Here's their press release.)
The utility, working with smart utility meter firm SmartSynch, isn't looking just into automated meter reading, in which an employee would drive around and use Wi-Fi instead of eyeballs to pull up the current readers. Nor are they looking to replace the driving around part, too, with a city-wide network that could constantly read the meters.
Rather, that's just part of a set of larger plans to allow management of load through participation of their customers, as well as potentially give those customers free Wi-Fi access as an incentive for meeting conservation goals. Customers will save money, too, by shedding load at critical times.
The Wi-Fi network will be planned as a metering and residential service. Fletcher said the utility will install as many Wi-Fi nodes as needed to provide a good signal to the meters, and, by extension, to users within those locations. This means that outdoor coverage could be irregular, but it's not a focus. It also means that it's much more likely that there will be a high availability of indoor service compared to other networks that have to provide a generalized cloud and ensure indoor and outdoor signals.
Henry Jones, the chief technical officer of SmartSync, said that the goal was demand response, defined as "getting the demand on its own, through incentives, or, in some cases, through direct load control that's initiated by the utility to change when that demand takes place." This includes having smart thermostats that would be in people's homes and in businesses and integrate with the meters. A spike in demand could allow the utility to change the air-conditioning temperature based on a customer's own preference: if you could stand your home or office hotter, the utility can take advantage of your flexibility. Customers would not only save the cost of the electricity they didn't use, but could potentially get a rebate based on the money the utility didn't spend during the demand period. (Power bought on the spot market can be crazily expensive compared to power routinely produced or under regular contract.)
Smart thermostats are in some use and have been talked about for years, but linking them into a live network has been the problem. I asked Fletcher why the utility didn't opt for broadband over powerline (BPL), which always seems to be next year's breakout technology. The reason was simple: BPL follows the same path as power, and a power outage would prevent them from using the network to control substation switching. Wi-Fi, which could be powered through back-up batteries, could continue to function and reach otherwise cut-off shunts and telemetry.
The metering Burbank will put in place will let them first assess how power is being used, and then use that to create a plan for how to best even out demand. This could include huge incentives to some customers to replace ancient air conditions, as some utilities do now to promote efficiency, but also offering free Wi-Fi as a carrot.
The remote metering will allow people to log in at any time to check their usage, and will enable pay-as-you-go billing, something that can help lower-income people who are typically faced with post-facto bills, and who then get behind and have their power disconnected, which adds additional charges. At minimum, a low-speed Wi-Fi network connection will let customers without other Internet access connect to pay their bill or view usage, too. (The meters will allow remote disconnects, too, rather than requiring a technician to visit the home, reducing cost.)
The utility gets to leverage its existing field workers, mapping data (which includes trees in the rights of way and building outlines), fiber-optic network, and utility pole and other rights of way ownership. Their meter readers will fan out with GPS devices, and gather the location of every meter in the city over a few month period, and that data will be directly integrated into their existing GIS system.
They also have the advantage of having giant movie and television studios in their town that use a lot of juice: The top few companies use 25 percent of the electricity; the top 200, 50 percent of the town's juice.
The rollout is planned in four phases, which increase in cost. Phase 1 was a $50,000 technology assessment that's finished. Phase 2 involves spending $50,000 on a pilot test on the utility's 20-acre campus. They then move to phase 3, in which they'll spend $1m, and capture a good portion of the power usage. Because big customers are involved, the utility estimates 80 to 100 Wi-Fi nodes will cover just 80 to 100 meters. Finally, stage 4 will cost about $5m and cover most of the 18 sq mi town.
Burbank, as I noted above, has a fiber-optic network already spread throughout the town. They use OC3 SONET now, an older 155.5 Mbps standard, and will retain that while overlaying 10 gigabit per second Ethernet with equipment from Cisco. This will allow them to feed all their Wi-Fi nodes or mesh clusters rather easily, but also gives them an additional line of revenue for their Internet service operations: studios will likely buy access for transport. Burbank will also invest in a high-definition transport intertie with firms that specialize in moving television data around over long distances.
This idea in Burbank is rather powerful because it's not just another municipal Wi-Fi network. Rather, there are specific applications already justified for long-term cost savings that will be put in place. Wi-Fi access will be an extra, and while a component, not the critical one. Not every utility could make this work: Having fiber in place and a well-understood future goal and squeeze on power generation make a perfect storm in which Wi-Fi fits in this Southern California town.
DS2 announces 400 Mbps electrical standard offering: It can carry 3 HDTV and 2 SDTV streams at the same time. Which is depressing that any household needs five simultaneous TV streams to be happy. Powerline networking for the home has multiple proprietary standards and one industry-supported effort called HomePlug. There's been no coalescing or consolidation, unfortunately. A fair amount of powerline and similar home networking technologies are used for distributing IPTV, rather than used solely for home purposes; that means a service provider tends to provide the equipment, and interoperability isn't an issue.
HomePlug AV finally starts to appear in gear: The 2.0 spec of the powerline networking standard was in place more than a year ago, but products started to appear only relatively recently. Zyxel offered up its products last October, but it's taken a while to see major brands follow suit: Linksys finally announced their product today, the Register reports. There are competing, proprietary standards made by firms like DS2, that can't interoperate with HomePlug AV. The standard's trade-group backer, the HomePlug Alliance, however, might finally gain some traction with multiple firms in the marketplace with devices. We'll see: The Alliance's products page only mentions 1.0 and their list of products for sale don't distinguish between earlier and AV designs.
Washington Post's Rob Pegoraro, IDG's Nancy Gohring are sucked in by cordless power: Pegoraro describes spotting two wireless power firms that he describes as more plugless than wireless. Powercast can "broadcast" power over three feet to circuits that could be integrated into existing electronics. Fulton's eCoupled, by contrast, uses charging surface: an equipped device, when it touches an otherwise safe charging surface, trickles in power.
My good friend Nancy, meanwhile, arrives at the end of 17-hour trip from Ireland to Las Vegas, and finds one missing charging cable and one broken one. She offers more detail about eCoupled. The company expects travelers could bring a small pad with them that plugs into AC power and then place their various devices on top, avoiding the need to bring cables of any kind. Motorola, Visteon, and Herman Miller are all working with eCoupled, though no products are announced.
Powerline devices don't work with each other: This is preventing the kind of growth predicted a few years ago as newer devices that use home electrical wiring as a network media were to hit the market. With specs like that of the HomePlug Alliance offering speeds of 200 Mbps, you'd have expected something to coalesce around a dominant flavor. Instead, you have chipmakers each pushing their own solution. This year's CES doesn't seem to offer clarity. Nancy Gohring reports for IDG News Service that the dominant retail manufacturer NetGear is actually unhappy with the lack of interop because it's stifled the market as a whole of which they'd like to have a piece.
The triple play is the convergence of data, voice, and television (IPTV) across a single pipe: Wi-Fi's in-home dominance of data and increasingly voice and IPTV (with proprietary extensions) will be challenged, ABI Research says, by the latest versions of three standards that work over coax, electrical wiring, and phone wiring. ABI Research says that by 2011, over 45 million gateways will offer wired-based distribution of data, voice, and video. (The quadruple play, by the way, adds mobile voice.)
With 802.11n having pushed back so far, the three existing-wire-based technologies already offer speeds in excess of 200 Mbps. HomePlug AV-based products are finally just about to ship, and HomePNA revived itself from the dead with new company participation in its 3.0 standard. ABI writes that Verizon has adopted Multimedia over Coax (MoCA) and AT&T has opted for Home Phone Networking Alliance (HPNA). HPNA works like DSL in the home, employing otherwise unused frequencies to carry data over coax or phone wires.
It took four years...but HomePlug AV is finally shipping from Zyxel: The 200 Mbps networking standard that works over home electrical wiring has taken quite a while to reach the market from its initial announcement. When I met with the HomePlug Alliance at CES this last January, they expected products within months. Still, even though there are two competing standards--each backed by a single firm--HomePlug has the industry mojo and will eventually catch on. The biggest consumer electronics and networking players back HomePlug.
HomePlug AV is designed around IPTV (Internet protocol television), which has millions of subscribers today and is expected to have tens of millions in a few years. With IPTV, a single pipe delivers TV programming, Internet access, and often telephony, too. Zyxel's first two products are an Ethernet adapter and a coax Ethernet adapter for $99 and $114, respectively. The coax adapter isn't well explained; I expect that it's a way for providers to pump data into the household over coax without requiring that the coax terminate at the settop box elsewhere in the house.
Oddly for a 200 Mbps raw throughput product, the Ethernet adapters run at 10/100 Mbps; gigabit Ethernet is apparently still too expensive to put into this class of device, but it should be a given in the near future because of the focus on having sufficient bandwidth to handle multiple video streams.
Several other manufacturers demonstrated HomePlug AV products a week ago, and more products are expected in the pipeline soon.
Associated Press, Walt Mossberg favor latest NetGear electrical data network devices: Last week, Mossberg said the 85 Mbps flavor of NetGear's Powerline adapters made a lot of sense for home users who want high-speed networks without pulling wires, and they worked reliably, unlike his recent experience with early Draft N (pre-ratification 802.11n) wireless devices. Today, the AP's Peter Svensson chimes in with a positive review of the faster 200 Mbps (HDX101) adapters, which Mossberg thinks are overkill for the overwhelming majority of consumers.
The LA Times exposes the soft underbelly of metro-scale Wi-Fi (free reg. req.): I've written about utility poles several times before, in that they are the weak link in wireless operators' ability to deploy Wi-Fi or other nodes rapidly. Even if a city or municipality owns the poles or controls the entity that does, they may not operate power to the poles. In this interesting piece in the LA Times, it becomes clear that we're seeing few Southern California municipal Wi-Fi projects because of obstruction by Southern California Edison Company.
Edison has requests a year old for pole access that they haven't acted on. The reporter, James Granelli, notes West Hollywood abandoned Wi-Fi plans, Santa Clarita has been waiting six months for a response, and Cerritos--hailed at one point as a major first unwired city--has only put Wi-Fi in a third of the city's area due to Edison.
In the city of Diamond Bar, officials might use eminent domain to seize one foot of pole access. They're tired of Edison providing no process or timeline. The company claims it needs to test the service, which the reporter notes draw about "two nightlights' worth of power." I might peg that higher--more like the wattage of a reading lamp lightbulb.
In any case, Edison's utility neighbor to the north, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has no worries. They've set up a flat rate for electrical use and signed contracts left and right. A spokesmen from the company says in the article, "The antennas are low-wattage devices, so even with street lights fully powered, the existing wiring can easily handle the added electric draw. They also have a consistent energy draw, so it's easy to estimate usage."
Edison has suggested that companies might pay cellular mounting rates of $2,000 per month versus the $36/year that operator MetroFi pays elsewhere. Cellular equipment can draw huge amounts of power, in direct contrast to Wi-Fi nodes, and require backhaul connections and other specialized gear. They also have a large revenue profile, and often pay high amounts to building owners and others for specific siting.
Powerline is technically a no-new-wires technology: NetGear joins the club in offering 200 Mbps powerline adapter that use a home's electrical system to encode and pass high-rate data. Their soution is based on DS2's technology, which falls outside the HomePlug Alliance. HomePlug's members are still lagging their fleeter competitors--there are now two competing, single-maker powerline standards. However, HomePlug could win in the end as applications that require 200 Mbps networks aren't yet to market, and HomePlug's advantage is that many chipmakers and manufacturers will produce products, which should drive prices quite low.
NetGear offers this under the "HD" brand to associate it with the flow of high-definition video. The Powerline HD Ethernet Adapter has a list price of $130, while a kit containing a pair of devices lists at $250.
Current scores $130m from General Electric and...EarthLink: Huh. Just a few minutes ago, I posted an item at WiMax Networking News about AOL and Clearwire partnering on a service that allows AOL to skip the wires, noting that like EarthLink, AOL must shed dial-up. AOL via Time-Warner may be resold over a major multiple systems cable operator, but they still have many parts of the country where they need a fourth way--beyond phone, cable, and powerline, meaning wireless as the fourth method. I count powerline as number three because the infrastructure is largely in place and it's been viable for much longer than true metro-scale broadband wireless.
So the third way is coming into its own, and EarthLink's investment is a direct result of their need to get customers without working through incumbent phone and cable operators.
It's worth noting that Google invested in Current (at an unspecified level) in July 2005 as part of $100m received from Google, Hearst, and Goldman Sachs. In 2004, Current and a related effort received $70m in investment. Google, too, needs end runs around gatekeepers.
Current offers broadband over powerline (BPL) in Cincinnati, and has a large project underway in Texas. EarthLink will be a retail reseller of Current's offering, but I expect that (per EarthLink's modality) this isn't exclusive.
The most surprising offering at CES? Lots of HomePlug and powerline networking products: Several companies and the HomePlug Alliance were demonstrating the latest in high-speed over-home-electrical-wiring networking. My scoop from the show? The HomePlug Alliance told me that the board had just released its ratified HomePlug AV--a 200 Mbps spec--to members, which can now finalize chip designs and start building systems. At the alliance booth, chipmaker Intellon had a demonstration of HD signals running across a pseudo network using pre-release chips.
Other booths around the show had non-standard but backward compatible powerline offerings at 85 Mbps from vendors that plan to upgrade to HomePlug AV in the future, but possible not for another year. One firm, DS2, was showing its own flavor of powerline that isn't compatible with HomePlug past or future at 200 Mbps.
The head of the HomePlug Alliance, Jim Reeber, said that several chipmakers will produce HomePlug AV chips, while competing powerline technologies are supported by single chipmakers. He believed this would enhance the HomePlug approach because manufacturers would have several vendors to choose among for chips, producing more competition and lowering cost.
At one point, BPL was seen as the third broadband leg: Cable, DSL, and BPL would provide robust competition in the marketplace. Instead, it's turning out to be cable, DSL, and much slower wireless today with WiMax potentially tomorrow. But BPL just got some traction with a Texas deal.
Current Communications Group and TXU Electric Delivery will offer BPL to two million Texas customers by the end of 2006 in busy markets like Dallas-Ft. Worth. They've chosen the correct flavor, and that's been one of the battles. Broadband can't transit transformers directly, and the "final 50 feet," let's say, has been tricky.
There have been many proposals to stick Wi-Fi transmitters on the transformers to bridge that gap; other methods, which seem superior, extract the data from the line coming into the transformer and connect it to the feed to a customer's house. The latter is what Current/TXU seems to use because customers need only plug in a device into an power outlet to use the service.
TXU will pay $150 million to Current for a variety of utility-related services that the network will allow, including monitoring for line breaks and potentially remotely turning off service, which requires a truck roll now. I've heard from other utilities that remote meter reading is huge as well. Electrical meters are replaced on a regular duty cycle that can span decades, and there's always new construction. This allows a rollout of BPL-based meters to a relatively large minority of homes quickly.
Because these two firms are using the direct outlet method of BPL, devices like soda machines could report their status.
Broadband over powerline (BPL) has been cited by supports of the incumbent telco/cable duopoly as a third line enabling competition in closed markets: BPL is a real technology, but it's also been a strawman in the municipal network debate. Along with arguments such as "DSL is available in 97 percent of ZIP codes in the U.S."--which ignores how big rural ZIP code regions are and only requires availability of a single DSL line--those opposed to municipal involvement in broadband state that BPL will provide another line of competition.
Ignore the fact that many electrical utilities are owned by municipal or public entities, thus not being an option to the folks that eschew governmentally run broadband. And ignore the fact that years after early technology was available, only a handful of locations have more than trials running. The dotcom collapse made many utilities leery of expanding beyond their core business.
Now we find that there may in fact be enough competition to forestall BPL. The PPL Corp. of Allentown, Pa., was a leader in BPL. But they said, according to an article in The Morning Call, that even with 1.3 million customers across Pennsylvania, the scale of operations was too small for the marginal return possible given current broadband pricing.
Manassas, Virg., by contrast, has a publicly-owned utility with a compact market and a private partner--COMTek--that specializes in telecom. PPL turned to wireless for the last-few-feet connection from the transformer on a pole to a customer's house; COMTek and Manassas opted for broadband-to-the-outlet. This latter approach is more complicated because it means installed a bypass around every transformer. The step-down voltage degrades the information carrier, otherwise.
This article is fascinating because it's so free of the sniping and extra-technical (that is, outside of technical) issues that often dog these kinds of deployments.
Panasonic shows 170 Mbps home-wiring networking module: The company will show off this new technology at the CEATAC exhibition in Japan next week. But how does this relate to HomePlug AV, which will offer 200 Mbps and broad industry backing through the HomePlug Powerline Alliance? No word.
The 200 Mbps spec has been approved by the HomePlug Powerline Alliance board: HomePlug currently operates at 14 Mbps over home electrical wiring. This was fast enough to compete with 10 Mbps Ethernet and 11 Mbps 802.11b Wi-Fi, but is distinctly last century now. This new spec will appear in products starting early next year, and should be a great alternative to Ethernet for installing a wired backbone for a home Wi-Fi network. I've long suggested HomePlug as an alternative to Ethernet for home networks in which speed wasn't the biggest criterion.
Update on the status of the first large-scale BPL effort in the US: This is the largest commercial rollout of BPL, which delivers data over powerlines by encoding information on high-voltage lines. High-speed broadband can span fairly large distances over existing wires through devices installed at points, which makes it awfully appealing.
So far, estimates--not by the power company, Cinergy--are about 8,000 homes have signed up out of 50,000 which could be served. Cinergy and its data partner Current Communications Group expects to pass 250,000 homes within three years. They aren't giving out numbers themselves, they say, to forestall providing competitive information.
The article opens with line workers installing a bypass box--that's because transformers don't pass the encoded data. Some BPL models use Wi-Fi as the last-100-foot solution, instead of using BPL to the home. This could wind up being a great WiMax/BPL hybrid, too, with WiMax on a certain frequency of poles serving a group of homes.
The utility is starting to gear up using the BPL for its own monitoring purposes, too. In other cases, utilities have worked the other way around, building fiber-optic installations for monitoring that are then turned to the use of broadband for city or for-fee public use.
Some of the think-tanks and analysts who are either opposed to municipally run broadband on ideological, financial, or other grounds are promoting BPL as a method of adding competition without requiring more wire in the ground. But BPL has seen little commercial uptake yet as power companies apparently haven't acted generally interested in it. Related to this is the issue that many electrical utilities are municipal entities, in which case that introduces that element back into their concern about rolling out a network: should they in the current climate?
HomePlug AV is near--but so are three other standards: Frustrating, isn't it, that just when you hear the news that the electrical networking standard HomePlug is about to be revised from version 1.0 to AV (11 Mbps to 200 Mbps!) that three other standards could split the marketplace and thus doom it in the same way that the excellent HomeRF standard sunk beneath the waters by failing to reach the market fast enough with speedy bandwidth.
PC World reports that HomePlug AV will be ratified in June and be built into settop boxes and other devices. With a raw 200 Mbps design, it should deliver at least 100 Mbps of actual net throughput, enough to stream multiple video signals across your home's wiring. It's also designed to work with Broadband over Powerline (BPL) equipment, although I'm finding that increasingly unlikely to be deployed in the U.S. based on power utility statements. (Anti-municipal telecom/broadband bills would make it impossible for private utilities to deploy BPL, too.)
The United Powerline Association unfortunately has a competing spec that won't interoperate. And then HomePlug has a low-power control protocol they're working on as does Z-Wave.
The article unfortunately quotes the New Millennium Research Council, a group that I have written about extensively here because of their parent company, Issue Dynamics, which is a PR firm that represents incumbent telco and cable operators. The NRMC is oddly 100-percent behind BPL, and if you look at Issue Dynamics's client list, you find that Edison Electric Institute and Virginia Power are represented in their client list; Pacific Gas & Electric was a former client.
So keep your scorecard straight: utilities offering broadband is a bad idea when they are owned by municipalities, but an entirely good idea when private companies own the utilities. And allowing municipal utilities to allow private companies to offer broadband over their electrical lines would be bad, too.