IEEE Spec Will Standardize Broadband Over Power Line

After years of discussion, broadband specification P1901 is nearing completion, and may finally make it possible for pervasive connectivity over regular power lines.

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Jun 16, 2010
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Technologists working to hammer out a common standard for broadband over power line (BPL) technology have reached a consensus on a draft protocol, which will now pass to a final vote.

Since 2005, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has been working on a specification to help provide standards for the BPL industry. With BPL technologies, Ethernet connectivity is provided over regular power lines, which can offer an appealing alternative to traditional models of connectivity for both enterprises and consumers.

Under the auspices of the IEEE P1901 working group, standards makers have been trying to find common ground between a BPL model advanced by the HomePlug Powerline Alliance and technology from consumer electronics giant Panasonic.

Jean-Philippe Faure, chair of the P1901 working group representing Panasonic, told InternetNews.com that a comment period is now set for August, with approval of P1901 as an IEEE standard targeted for September 2010.

"The group first spent about two years in developing requirements. The challenge was the broad scope of P1901," Faure said. "The standard aimed at addressing a wide range of applications including in-home networking, building, smart grid and transportation applications."

The IEEE P1901 working group also has had to figure out how to integrate competing technologies. Faure explained that there are two main modulation techniques: wavelet Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM) and Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) OFDM.

"Each technique had specific advantages and it was finally decided to include both in the standard for best addressing the power-line communication requirements," Faure said. "The challenge was then to harmonize the specifications and to develop a general co-existence mechanism. More than 90 companies participated in the effort."

The co-existence mechanism is a critical element in the IEEE P1901 standards effort, and has now been implemented within the standard's near-final draft form. Faure explained that BPL technologies use the same frequencies for communicating over the power line.

"It creates transmission collisions if systems using different BPL technologies are connected to the same power lines," Faure said. "The co-existence protocol prevents collisions by setting minimum rules that all systems using any kind of technology obey for transmitting. This mechanism is simple and compatible with all BPL technologies."

Faure added that the co-existence mechanism in the IEEE P1901 standard is essential to harmonize technologies that are currently competing in the market. Co-existence may also facilitate migration to future technologies, which is why the working group made it mandatory in its specification.

As the P1901 standard is now in its final phases, there are still other potential BPL standards that could emerge in the future. Faure noted that P1901 is the first BPL standard with such a broad scope.

"It is aimed at being the base standard of a family standard," he said. "Enhancements for specific applications are likely to come while maintaining compatibility with the base standard."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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