IBM resurrects broadband over powerline, now with smart grid focus

Corinex and IBM have won what looks set to be a very big contract with E.ON, a German multinational utility and major player in energy markets, to supply broadband over powerline (BPL) technology for E.ON’s low voltage grids – the bits of the network nearer the end-users, after power has been stepped down from the high-voltage distribution network. It seems that IBM is reanimating BPL, after an abortive attempt to use it for commercial broadband back in 2009.

E.ON says it plans to deploy the BPL tech to support its German smart meter and smart grid rollout, and will be implementing it in transformer stations and street cabinets – roughly 60,000 systems. The protocol being used is SNMPv3/IPv6, but E.ON hopes to eventually use – an emerging standard.

More importantly, E.ON is so fond of BPL that it says it plans to drive the energy industry to unify around the technology – announcing what sounds like a standardization process. This could be grim news for the likes of Wi-SUN or other LPWAN technologies, which have fancied themselves as ideal candidates for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), but the electricity utility market’s approach to each project is so varied that there is plenty of room for different approaches to go around. Similarly, water and gas don’t have the option for BPL.

Crucially, the term Broadband here means the width of the frequency used, rather than its capacity for carrying data – explained to us by Chano Gómez, MaxLinear’s Senior Director of Marketing, the company that is providing chipsets to power Corinex’ modules and gateways. As Gómez explained, 15 years ago, BPL now means Broadband Power Line rather than Broadband over Power Lines – a notable distinction.

The current BPL technology should deliver 10-50Mbps in the best-case scenario, using 5-15MHz frequency, which is much faster than the narrowband implementation that could deliver 1-10Kbps using 2-100kHz. For BPL, the goal is now supporting high-speed smart grid applications, not consumer broadband. E.ON did note that it does currently use narrowband PLC in other European countries, outside of Germany.

“After extensive field trials, we found that Corinex broadband over powerline technology meets our requirements for mass roll-out of smart metering services,” said E.ON’s Elmar Peine, who heads its telecommunication infrastructure. “We are convinced that BPL is ideally suited to address the needs of many other utilities, so E.ON is interested in supporting BPL industry standardization, in order to create a broad ecosystem of silicon and system vendors.”

Corinex, based in Vancouver, will be providing repeaters and head ends for the first two years of the project, which is planning on covering 200,000 homes. IBM’s involvement here comes from its Tivoli platform, on which Corinex’s Grid Value network management system is based. Corinex also develops products, another powerline communication (PLC) standard that has seen more interest from in-home applications, thanks to its multi-wire support (traveling over phone lines, coax, and powerline).

As it stands, IBM and Corinex don’t appear to be pushing as the protocol to link the meters – relying on the older BPL. However, is a very promising standard, especially for smart home devices. MaxLinear and Corinex are developing a smart grid solution though, as part of MaxLinear’s drive to push to more markets, including industrial and automotive – as Gómez explained, adding that it could take advantage of the scale afforded by chips, which already ship by their millions in the consumer and carrier market.

E.ON and IBM have partnered in this space before. In 2013, IBM was picked to provide hosting for E.ON’s German smart metering project – although Germany later challenged the EU ruling that was compelling its member countries to push for national smart meter projects. IBM was supplying its SmartCloud and Intelligent Energy Service (IESEP) systems, as part of the private cloud service.

IBM has a long history in BPL. Way back in 2005, it partnered with CenterPoint Energy to see how the old-definition BPL tech could be used in its utility operations. In 2008/9, IBM was trying to push the tech as an answer for ISPs in rural markets, signing a $9.6m contract in the US with International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) to supply retail customers with speeds of up to 3Mbps – which were pretty competitive at the time. It was also taking advantage of some Obama-era ARRA stimulus funds.

That market never really took off. At one point, there were around 35 BPL providers in the US in 2009, and the FCC said there were around 5,000 subscribers. However, the installations were dogged by complaints about interference with amateur radio bands, which culminated in FCC rule changes that hampered adoption. UK estimates said that one BPL device was capable of generating as much RF noise as 10,000 other devices operating in the same unlicensed RF bands.

Even in 2009, BPL proponents were looking to the utility space as an alternative avenue – with DirecTV and Current Communications being a notable supplier to Dallas. As per CNET, Comtek was forced to move away from broadband and into smart grid monitoring.

Since then, there has been very little news from IBM regarding BPL. At the time, there were big potential targets, what with there being around 900 electric cooperatives in the US that served the type of potential rural broadband customer that wasn’t covered by coaxial cable or DSL copper – using the powerline as the pre-installed data pipeline.

With IBEC, IBM had said it was working with 7 such co-ops (as outlined here), in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, and Virginia. The pair said they had covered some 20,000 homes, with the potential to bring the tech to another 320,000 homes by 2010.  There were around 18m rural homes at the time, meaning that there was a huge potential addressable market – for co-ops with customers that were not footprint-dense enough to draw the attention of conventional broadband providers.

Engineering and Technology asked what had happened to BPL in a 2013 article that is well worth a read. Martin Courtney said that after the initial plaudits ended, engineers struggled to convert the technology into the market proposition that many thought it could be – and that trials had petered out accordingly. The onset of 3G mobile broadband took all the wind out BPL’s sails, and the lack of an international standard hampered adoption among developers (an issue we hear about a lot, in the IoT).