Sault St. Marie telco puts broadband over power lines

An Ontario utility wants to prove to its peers that broadband over powerlines offers an economical alternative to providing high-speed service in rural areas.

PUC Telecom Wednesday said it was working with Andover, Mass.-based

Amperion Inc. on what could be the first Canadian example of harnessing medium-voltage power lines to deliver data transport.

Broadband over power line (BPL) products take data signals running through fibre-optic lines and injects them into the power grid. Data packets are caught by special devices and reamplified or repackaged before signals can break apart and are then sent out again.

Using Amperion’s Connect hardware and software products, PUC Telecom will essentially turn Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. into one city-wide WiFi hot spot, allowing customers to access the service through specially placed utility poles. Amperion says Connect provides 24 Mbps of delivered throughput per injection point depending on line quality and equipment spacing.

BPL is still a fairly young market but some utilities see it as a way of getting around the high cost of laying cable or building satellite towers, because the technology makes use of ubiquitous power lines.

PUC Telecom general manager Martin Wyant said the company approached Amperion because it wanted to find a way to more effectively compete in the mid-level market traditionally dominated by cable or DSL providers.

“”You can buy and resell that stuff, and there’s a whole bunch of hurdles you have to go through, but at the end of the day, when you look at your margins — there’s not much left,”” he said. “”We have a fibre-optic network that’s deployed in many areas in our city, but we’re not going to do fibre builds to the home. We’ll go broke.””

Amperion was formed almost three years ago with investments from Cisco Systems and American Electric Power, among others. The firm’s marketing manager, Amy Burnis said Amperion has about five customers in various stages of testing and deployment, including a Pennsylvania utility that is already offering commercial services.

“”The typical steps are that a lot of customers will do a small technical trial, which goes into a market trial,”” she said. “”As they get comfortable with the technology and understand how to provide the service, they expand it into more commercial offerings.””

Wyant said he expected to see strong customer demand, particularly because the service is easy to install. Instead of drilling holes, customers would simply put a wireless bridge within sight of PUC Telecom’s network, and they’ll be able to roam wherever the network exists. The initial setup of Connect was completed on Tuesday, he said.

“”I was just flying (when I used it),”” Wyant said. “”And we had a snowstorm up here. That’s why we wanted to do it at this time of year, because it’s really cold. If you’re going to talk to the other utilities, they want to make sure it works up here.””

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to address concerns that ham radios can interfere with BPL services. Wyant, however, said the fact PUC is using wireless as both its beginning and end points will allow it to avoid the problems encountered by providers who send signals into customers’ homes through the electrical current.

Early BPL adopters are deploying in a variety of ways, Burnis said.

“”It takes some time before there’s a comfort level,”” she said. “”The industry as a whole has proven in the last year that the technology works . . . people now are focusing more on the business model.””

Wyant said PUC Telecom would let its technical trial run a few more weeks and may be in a position to start offering service by the end of next month.

Comment: [email protected]

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