Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Powerline internet keeps on struggling

When I was in South-Africa at the beginning of October, there was a lot of talk about powerline internet, the technology to distribute internet in the house through electricity plugs. The South-African electricity companies see powerline internet technology as a cheaper way to distribute internet in South-Africa, where telecom is very expensive compared to other countries. During the Government Technology Conference in Johannesburg I got into a discussion with the City Manager of the City of Johannesburg and asked him why he was favouring a technology, which is not stable yet. I pointed to the many experiments in Europe and the only commercial project in Germany (as far as I know).

I was pleasantly surprised to see an article on a newspaper site a few days ago, saying that powerline internet is still not stable. The editors tested the latest sets of special data plugs or home plugs. It was not for the first time that they had a test. In 2004 they tested the first generation home plugs and got a 14Mb signal. At first glance this is not bad, certainly as ADSL was still on an access of 2Mbps. Now they had home plugs at their disposal, of 85Mbps and even of 200Mbps. The test with the 85Mbps gave a reasonable result as long as no other plugs were used in the electricity plug box and no extension cords were used. This would give too much interference. But the results of the 200Mbps sets from Philips and Netgear were disappointing. Of the signals distributed with a speed of 200Mbps only 2 to 3 Mb was left.

A representative of Netgear confirmed the impression that much speed was lost; in fact a third to a quarter of the original signal with come through, he said. Of the 85Mbps series around 14Mb will be the result. Of the 200 Mbps sets only 20 pct is the result, so maximally 40Mb. But the editors concluded that in some cases only 2 to 3 Mb was left. This is caused, according to the representative of Netgear, to the way the electricity groups have been arranged during the construction. You need in fact a clean powernet and work on the electricity group, which has the sender. The ensuing discussion of users on the forum gave a range of experiences, ranging from ‘no problems’ to ‘forget it, it does not work’.

In The Netherlands Essent has experimented with the technology; I think that this was in 2003 in the city of Arnhem. Essent is a company which distributes electricity, water and cable. They have several experiments for the distribution of internet. The company is for example constantly upgrading its internet cable speed and has now reached 40Mb in a domestic environment. It has however set its mind on 100Mb next year. Their Powerline experiment did not get any follow-up; the conclusion was that the technology was still unstable. No other official experiments have been held. Yet people can buy home plug sets and install it themselves. And people do as can be concluded from the reactions on the forum.

I have a simple way of testing whether a technology will fly. If I know someone in circle of friends and acquaintances who is using the technology, it will have a chance. If I do not know anyone and it stays silent for 6 months, the technology is dead. In the case of powerline technology, I do not know anyone of my friends and acquaintances to use it. So I guess it is dead till a next stable generation.

Given the local situation with fixed and mobile telecom in South Africa, I am afraid that powerline is going to be a failure there. Not only will people curse the technology, but also internet.

(I just read that Belgacom TV, a service of the Belgian telecom incumbent Belgacom, will use powerline as one of its technologies for distributing the new television service. The technology will be delivered by Corinex. Earlier I had indicated that the Belgian cable company Telenet would use power line technology as one of its distribution technologies.)


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