The concept of transmitting data over power cables is as old as power cables themselves. Only recently has this become a practical option. Bewag has embarked on what it calls the DüNE project to develop this medium.

In Spring 1997, five German inventors (F Brandt, F Lukanek, K Schönfeldt, W Schultz, and C Hensen) patented technology for powerline communication, with the Berlin-based power utility Bewag holding the economic rights to the patent. In Spring 1998, the German patent department recognized the patent with the title: “Method and disposition of data communication over low voltage powerlines.”

The fundamental difference between DüNE (Datenübertragung über Niederspannungs- Energienetze – data transmission over low voltage power lines) scheme and those that have been devised by other companies is that the DüNE patented approach involves using the existing wiring running right through the user’s premises, as opposed to adding new wiring at that point.

It is intended to achieve a technically viable and economically competitive technology within a development period of no more than three years. The priority is to develop a mass produced technology that will be able to provide a transmitting medium along powerlines capable of competing economically with the telephone network. The most important part of the development of a city-wide intranet would be based on a universally usable communication concept with a maximum usable bit rate interfacing with the classical telecommunication network

The evaluation phase ran from October 1997 to August 1998, which proved the technical feasibility of the system, with test locations in various private premises. These pilot tests are still ongoing. It is expected that mass field trial equipment will be available by the middle of 2000, with the finished product and market development of the infrastructure and service sector starting by the end of 2000.

DüNE expects to be able to capture at least 25 per cent of the potential world market over the next 5 years.

Ambitious targets were set for the DüNE project, with the initial intention being to prove data communications over low voltage powerlines as an open platform for a variety of different applications. It is using a very broad spectrum approach, which dramatically reduces the problems surrounding ‘white noise’. This noise results from the fact that power lines were never originally designed to be telecommunication carriers, and hence they are not balanced and generate electromagnetic radiation at a level that radio frequency authorities would like to see reduced.

Potential

Powerline communications offer data speeds that are 20-30 times faster than anything that is currently available on the telecommunication modem market. Project manager Frank Brandt says that: “Every wall socket or light fitting would be a possible interface to the communications services, such as house automation, lighting control or burglary protection.”

Partnerships

The Düne developers are going for a partnership approach, Brandt says the aim is “partner selection to form a wide platform knowledge, but to reduce competition with each other, thus creating the maximum rate of development.” Bewag has teamed up with Hamburgische ElectricitätsWerke (HEW) and Gas Elekrizitäts und Wasserwerke Köln (GEW). These entities have worked with Medien Management Paderborn and the University of Paderborn. Other industrial partners include: ABB, Cisco Systems, and Krone, and the marketing partners of Booz Allen & Hamilton, and Spectrum Strategy Consultants.

Perhaps oddly, it appears that Deutsche Telekom has made no significant response to this new potential competitor, other than to express its interest in taking measurements on the powerline technology in order to be able to make a detailed comparison with its xDSL equipment.

Brandt has says they are currently looking for a consortium to enable them to be able to move into the market development phase. The consortium would ideally consist of a combination of industrial partners, financial partners and future operators. It will have to drive a chip development and to establish a de facto standard for spread spectrum-based powerline communications. To achieve this, it will be necessary to integrate this standard into the hardware.

System

Three service classes are defined in DüNE, powerline related services, classic telecommunication services, and energy related services. DüNE goes beyond Cenelec Band frequencies (which are currently between 5-30 MHz).

DüNE has undertaken various pilot projects using handbuilt equipment. It is expected that mass field trials will be started by the end of 1999, followed by mass manufacture. The pilot projects are already delivering good, stable pictures over the powerline network. Brandt said that he expected that the product development phase would occur during 1999, with the market entry phase starting in 2000.

The future

Powerline communications is rapidly becoming a mature technology. The market is now starting to believe that it is a promising new technology for new services demanded in private premises. The market is currently considering the opportunities to reach millions of new customers worldwide through the use of powerline ‘last mile’ access.

Potential conflicts between powerline signals and other users

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