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Powerline broadband on the up-and-up

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Broadband over powerline (BPL) is hardly a new approach to bringing high speed access to inaccessible parts, whether these are villages or corners of the home or office. But it has suffered from low vendor interest and various technical hitches, until now, when it is finally taking its place alongside wireless technologies as a way to expand broadband access cost effectively.

Its raised profile has been encouraged by the interest of government agencies, particularly in the US, and some key suppliers, notably Motorola, which is putting powerline at the heart of its strategy for using multiple converged connections to deliver broadband and mobile services. Importantly, like some smaller wireless vendors, it aims to integrate BPL and wireless tightly, making them complementary rather than competitive.

Such a converged approach would make it logical to harmonize standards too, and one of the main powerline industry bodies, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, announced at this week’s Intel Developers Forum that it was aiming to become part of the IEEE standardization efforts that control the 802.11, 802.16 and 802.15 wireless specifications.

HomePlug targets IEEE

The Alliance will create an Implementers' Forum Board of Directors, which will include Intel, Cisco/Linksys and Motorola among its sponsor members, heavyweight support that will boost its ambition to have its standards adopted by the IEEE, as well as the European body ETSI. Other members of the new board include cableco Comcast, ISP Earthlink, retailer RadioShack, plus Japan’s Sharp and Sony. HomePlug has three key platforms - 1.0 + AV for broadband in-home networking; BPL for broadband access over powerlines; and home automation, for low bandwidth industrial or home control applications.

The new move is a response to the IEEE’s formation last month of a working group, P1901, focused on BPL, which has raised fears of a split between two standards that could fragment vendor efforts and deter potential powerline adopters. Philip Poulidis, senior director for BPL standards at one of the most prominent chip players in the niche, Intellon, said in an interview: “We welcome the IEEE effort, but it’s no secret IEEE standards take a long time. We hope that we can bring a fully functional PHY and MAC chip to the table and that IEEE will take that into consideration.” The PHY (physical layer) and MAC (media access control) specifications for HomePlug for AV were approved by the HomePlug Powerline Alliance earlier this year.

HomePlug is undoubtedly the most advanced body in developing such technologies and so it would be logical for the IEEE to adopt the technology for its own efforts in order to speed time to ratification of a standard – the slowness of this process increasingly threatens to sideline the IEEE and put the industry entirely into the hands of vendors with the power to set de facto standards, as we have seen in the stalemated 802.15.3a UltraWide- Band-based effort for fast home networking, which is likely to be superseded by a de facto version supported by the WiMedia Alliance.

The support for HomePlug from Sony, Intel, Cisco and Motorola - all so influential both in the home networking market and in the wireless standards targeting the same sector, including WiMedia - will enhance HomePlug’s chances enormously. Indeed, approval by the IEEE could be the last element required to ensure the Alliance’s success and make BPL as prominent on the communications agenda as wireless.

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