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Swift surfing over power sockets


Fast Internet connections are all the rage, mostly over DSL and cable modems. But a little-known competitor - a technology that promises speeds up to 200 megabits per second over existing electrical infrastructure - is jostling for a place in this lucrative market.

In January 2003, broadband services - used to transmit voice, data or video signals simultaneously - had either been requested or were already available in around 7 per cent of European Union households. The Yankee Group predicts that by 2007, that figure will grow to around 28 per cent.

"Powerline Communications (PLC) is an alternative to access technologies such as xDSL and cable modem," says Mayte Bacete, External Projects Manager for DS2, a Spanish company specialising in PLC technology. "They offer only limited broadband and face problems of high costs and implementation deadlines."

First developed some 15 years ago in the United Kingdom, PLC enables permanent Web access, voice telephony and multimedia services through the electricity supply. It makes use of low-voltage signals between the premises of a customer and local electricity substations, turning each electrical plug into a component of a Local Area Network (LAN), which is ultimately connected to the Internet. Electric utility companies love the idea, because they can create new sources of revenue over existing power-distribution infrastructure.

PLC trials are happening worldwide, though Europe leads the way with schemes in some 20 countries, reaching 125,000 users. In Spain, for example, two electricity utilities are developing commercial applications over PLC in Barcelona, Madrid and Zaragoza. Says Bacete: "These companies are using first-generation technology developed by DS2. Now we are testing faster, broadband technology on a small scale with Italian utility ENEL. Several homes near Rome are enjoying throughputs up to 200 Mb/s." This speed - four times greater than five years ago - is sufficient for the most demanding of today’s video-streaming services.

The new PLC technology is the fruit of work done in Adoc, a European IST project coordinated by Bacete. Two of the four partners, DS2 and Portuguese silicon-design house ChipIdea Microelectrónica, have developed innovative and reusable ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) cores for OFDM communications. Orthogonal-Frequency Division Multiplexing is a method of digital modulation, in which a signal is split into several narrowband channels at different frequencies.

"Integrated in a chip, each of our eight blocks has a different function, acting for instance as an amplifier, filter or PLC bridge," says Bacete. "With the help of our Swedish partner Ilevo, recently acquired by Schneider Electric, the chips are fitted to a board with other components. This board becomes part of a PLC modem." She underlines that a broadband PLC modem, unlike a standard PLC modem, can handle real-time multimedia applications and offer guaranteed Quality of Service (QoS).

In terms of distribution, PLC trails significantly behind DSL, cable modem and WiFi. However Bacete believes that broadband PLC competes well with them on speed and price: "Our project has been extended by four months, to complete the Italian trial. But even before the results are in, I predict that PLC will move from small to mass-scale roll-outs in 2004."

Adoc-based technology is planned for further trials in Spain, Italy, the UK and Ireland.

Mayte Bacete
External Projects Manager
DS2-Design of Systems on Silicon S.A.
C/Charles Robert Darwin 2
Parc Tecnologic
E-46980 Paterna
Tel: +34-96-1366004
Fax: +34-96-1366250

Tara Morris | IST Results
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