PUC Telecom tests broadband over power grid

PUC Telecom Inc. in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., has begun a market trial of broadband over power lines technology.

PUC Telecom, a division of Sault Ste. Marie’s electrical utility, is providing Internet access in parts of

the city by transmitting data over medium-voltage power lines.

It is believed to be the first market trial in Canada where broadband over power lines technology has been used to carry data on the electrical grid, as opposed to within a building. PUC Telecom has been running technical tests of the technology from Amperion Inc. of Andover, Mass., since February, said Martin Wyant, general manager of PUC Telecom. Now it is offering the service to a wider audience, though still not charging fees.

The market trial is expected to run until December, Wyatt said, and PUC Telecom will decide early in the new year whether to proceed with a commercial implementation.

“The intent is to undertake the trial for a couple of months to be able to generate enough information with respect to the performance of the network and the interest shown by the customers to be able to make a decision,” Wyant said.

Amperion’s system can transmit data at speeds up to 20 megabits per second, with average performance around 15 megabits, said Amy Hunt, marketing manager at Amperion. The signal travels over medium-voltage lines between an injection point connecting the electrical grid to the Internet and wireless transceivers that communicate with customers’ equipment.

The wireless hop from the power lines to the customer’s premises uses Wi-Fi technology, Wyant said, limiting the bandwidth available to the customer to what Wi-Fi can handle. Wi-Fi has a theoretical top speed of 11 megabits per second; real-world performance is generally less. Hunt said about six megabits might be typical.

PUC Telecom is currently offering the service in two areas of about two square kilometres each, Wyant said. One is an industrial park, the other a commercial area. The company has teamed with IP Applications of Vancouver, which is providing customer support and other back-office functions for the service.

Wyant said his company is interested in broadband over power lines because its optical fibre network is not suitable for competing with Bell Canada and Shaw Communications in the residential and small-business broadband Internet access market. “We see that certainly as a growing market,” he said.

The idea seems a logical fit for utility telecom companies, of which Ian Collins, chair of the United Telecom Council of Canada, said there are 40 to 50 in Canada, most of them in Ontario.

But so far few of Canada’s utility telcos are pursuing the idea, said Brian Sharwood, Toronto-based principal with telecommunications consulting firm SeaBoard Group. “It’s not like they’re not looking at it,” Sharwood said, “but it’s low on their priority list…. Their competencies are in fibre.”

Most utility telcos have limited time and resources for exploring new technology and have enough to do building markets for their existing offerings, Sharwood said, and their roots in the electrical utility business make them inherently conservative.

Trytel, a unit of Telecom Ottawa Ltd., has installed a broadband over power lines system in the Ramada Inn and Conference Centre in Cornwall, Ont., but this is an in-building system. Jim Yuan, who works on special assignments for Trytel, said his company is still unsure about the economics of using the technology on the electrical grid.

Wyant, however, said he believes it can be viable, depending on the location, the state of the grid and other factors.

Hunt said Amperion’s gear has been installed across the U.S. and outside North America since it was launched last year, and some of Amperion’s customers are offering commercial services with it today.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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