Broadband over Powerline (BPL) technology suffered a serious blow yesterday when reports surfaced that BPL service provider International Broadband Electric Communications will cease operations at the end of January.

In a letter posted on its website, IBEC encourages existing customers to pursue other options for Internet service as soon as possible. “We expect that your service will remain active through the end of January 2012 but we cannot guarantee the quality and availability of your service during this period,” the letter states. The letter also notes that customer support will cease operations on January 16, 2012.

IBEC attributes the service shutdown to “our inability to overcome the financial damage from the April 27, 2011 tornadoes that ravished some of our major service areas.” According to a report yesterday from WVIR-TV, a news outlet serving Nelson County, Va—one of IBEC’s service areas—IBEC sustained “millions of dollars in infrastructure damage in 2011, forcing the company to shut down operations in rural communities across the country.”

But those who have followed BPL’s difficult history may suspect there is more behind the service shutdown than tornado damage.

IBEC’s farewell letter is a far cry from the tone the company took just over three years ago when it announced a $9.6 million agreement to have IBM install BPL networks using power lines operated by electric cooperatives throughout the eastern U.S.  “This capability will play a critical role in rural health, education and economic development, while closing the digital divide that exists between well served and underserved America,” said Scott Lee, CEO of IBEC, in the announcement of the IBM deal.

At the time the deal was announced, the Associate Press reported that IBEC planned an initial buildout costing $70 million and covering 340,000 homes in Alabama, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. But IBEC and IBM referenced a lower target goal in February 2009 when they issued an announcement stating that the companies had forged agreements with seven different power companies to use the power company networks to deliver broadband service to 200,000 rural customers in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia. At that time, at least two of the companies—Cullman Electric Cooperative in Alabama and Midwest Energy Cooperative in Michigan—had made limited deployments of the technology.

Telecompetitor was skeptical about IBEC’s ability to succeed from the start  — and IBEC’s prospects looked even worse when an unrelated BPL deployment in Manassas, Virginia seemed to go sour in late 2009 and a local councilman told a technology website that the business was not financially sound.

BPL also has encountered challenges on the technology side—and at least one of IBEC’s original seven power companies scaled back on its deployment plans as a result. As of mid-2010, Midwest Energy Cooperative said it had no target for expanding BPL service beyond two initial substations because of problems with signals being able to travel on underground wire. At that time the cooperative was hoping to resolve those problems but there is no indication on Midwest Energy’s website that such a resolution ever occurred.

Federal agencies also appeared to be wary of the technology. Although Midwest Energy and other organizations applied for broadband stimulus funding for BPL projects, Telecompetitor is not aware of any that were awarded.

It’s unclear how extensively IBEC deployed BPL technology after its initial start. The company has removed all information other than the farewell letter from its website. But what is clear is that with IBEC’s service shutdown, the technology’s already low deployment numbers will sink even further, with little likelihood of that trend being reversed any time soon.

Perhaps the stakeholder group that stands to benefit the most from IBEC’s demise is the satellite broadband industry. As Lee has noted, IBEC was targeting rural communities with no broadband option other than satellite service.



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9 thoughts on “IBEC Shutdown Deals Latest Blow to BPL

  1. How about the WISP industry. They were there before BPL, and have delivered quality, high bandwidth services to these ares for years. They also have better speed and lower latency than satellite providers. When are you guys going to take notice of the almost 3000 wireless ISP's that have been and continue to service rural America?

    1. Thanks for your comment and your passion regarding the WISP industry. I agree with you regarding WISPs – they are an integral part of the rural broadband landscape. Our goal is to cover all broadband carriers – WISPs included. The challenge with that is WISPs tend to be a little quiet regarding their news, developments, etc. But, please send news our way – we'd love to cover it.

      Check out our WISP category for our ongoing coverage.

  2. Oh, yeah…almost forgot. Most of these WISP's are SELF FUNDED unlike many of these charlatans who get huge grants and loans then "poof" they are gone.

  3. Replying to ccrum and WISPs:

    The terrain in the area is rather hilly, but if a WISP can manage to secure a hilltop location, it should serve a pretty large number of people. It HAS to be cheaper to put a wireless device on every hilltop than it is to run BPL through the overhead power lines that run through fields and between houses in the woods. I've seen the central Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania areas where this is deployed and it's a broadband challenge no matter how you look at it. But I could well see some strategically placed wireless devices solving a lot of the problem.

    Fortunately from a performance perspective, the population density is low, so a lot of people trying to fill a small pipe with simultaneous data is less of a problem than it would be in more urbanized areas. Unfortunately, that population density is hard to serve economically, so I am not sure how many WISPs are operating in the more rural parts of these service areas. Of course, the same pipe-size issue exists with BPL and those "200 Mb/s" speeds were sheer marketing fantasy. Before the IBEC site went down, one could see that a few Mb/s were the best promise made, and in reality, the "better than a dialup" characterization is quite accurate.

    I also saw in one article that fiber is also being deployed in the region. Fiber is by far the best choice, albeit expensive, as it WILL keep up with the next several generations of needed data rate.

    I think the comment about it not working very well is also expected. Take the best Ethernet cable you can buy. Now, untwist it. Now, strip off all the insulation. Now, separate the wires by about 10 feet. Now put the wires outdoors, up in the air about 30 feet. Now, connect those wires to a lot of other wires connected a large number of noisy devices and loads. That should work just as well as the best Ethernet cable you can buy, right? That's Access BPL. For a number of technical reasons, underground wiring is worse, and I've seen a number of reports that indicate that this technology could not be implemented well with underground wiring. Access BPL It is an unreliable way to deliver Internet Access to end users at best; an interference-causing polluter of spectrum at worst and it started out not much better than a dial-up from the getgo. Go for the fiber to an area and then use wireless or twisted pair to get from there into homes and businesses. BPL may have a niche role to play in areas where more robust ways of transporting data can't be made to work, but I think we've seen the last of the major Access BPL installations.

    It's not a panacea for smart-grid applications, either, as there is no difference between its limitations for sending data for Internet access and sending data for the utility to use to monitor and control its systems. It can be made to work more reliably below 500 kHz and for smart-grid, less speed is required anyway, so it is easier to protect radio spectrum users, but for the most part, utilities are choosing other technologies as their backbones. The fact that former BPL companies like Ambient and Current Technologies have virtually abandoned their BPL product line and used their contacts with the utilities to market smart-grid applications that don't use BPL is rather telling.

    BPL does have uses inside buildings, though, as the AC wiring in a building looks a lot more like a radio-frequency transmission line that do overhead power lines. Fortunately for spectrum users like Amateur Radio, the major industry coalitions such as the HomeGrid Forum and HomePlug have implemented technologies that don't use the Amateur bands, thus avoiding the local radio user most likely to be impacted by the technology. This is a successful model that works and that has the support of a wide range of stakeholders. For reasons I will probably never understand, groups like the Utilities Telecom Council and the FCC oppose taking this successful model and turning it into equally successful regulations to guide this industry away from the problems it faced without good regulations.

    Albert Einstein said it best: To paraphrase, you don't solve a problem by thinking the same way that got you into the mess in the first place. Some in the industry have understood that, with successful products and deployment. Others have not. The roadside is littered with the corpses of failed BPL systems.

    Ed Hare,

  4. I was part of a Government test to send broadband information over a wired structure. I had invented a semiconductor device that could read very small electromagnetic fields that carried information over the structure. The test was successful with no apparent bandwidth limitations or noise peaks. Couuious, that the industry seems to be going down the same rabbit hole!
    Best Bill

  5. Wireless Internet Service Providers typically have limited access to growth capital. As a result, growth is negatively impacted as WISP’s are forced to fund growth through internally generated cash flow. Given the capital-intensive nature of the business, this significantly hampers growth.

  6. I also have the same thought as you. The company has removed all information other than the parting letter from its website. But what is clear is that with IBEC’s service down, the technology’s already low number of deployments will fall even further, with little chance of that trend reversing any time soon.

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