Efforts to use electricity cables to transmit data took a step forward in Europe with the publication of an open specification for power line communications (PLC).

The Open PLC European Research Alliance (OPERA), which is partly funded by the European Commission, said its specification will accelerate the development of products that use powerlines for broadband internet access, voice and video services, as well as utility applications such as automatic meter reading.

The approval of the specification, announced Tuesday, comes after more than two years of development by a consortium of experts from 35 organisations, including ten universities.

200Mbps broadband over power

Products based on the specification will deliver speeds of more than 200Mbps (bits per second), according to OPERA. It is based on OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) modulation and offers both FD (Frequency Division) and TD (Time Division) repeating capabilities.

Whether PLC will ever take off remains to be seen, however. Ham radio operators, particularly in the US, contend that broadband over power lines interferes with their radio signals. OPERA claimed in a white paper that its technology is "ham radio friendly."

Moreover, PLC competes head on with DSL (digital subscriber line) and wireless LAN (WLAN) technologies in the local loop. In particular, WiMax could pose a huge threat to PLC in rural areas where the Commission is keen to extend broadband coverage and, largely for this reason, has supported power line technology.

Track record doesn't crackle

Equally worrisome, early PLC deployments in Europe have mostly failed.

A few years ago, Germany emerged as a hotbed of PLC development. Several regional electricity companies entered the fray, including Eon, EnBW Energie Baden-Württemberg and MVV Energie AG.

Eon has since abandoned the PLC market, claiming the technology is too complicated and costly to deploy, with little chance of seeing a return on investment.

Siemens had also hoped to be at the forefront of PLC. However, Siemens exited the market in 2001, citing regulatory delays and a lack of European standards.

In 1999, Nortel Networks, based in Brampton, Ontario, pulled the plug on its PLC activities in the UK, claiming the technology would remain a niche product at best. Like Eon, it saw little chance of recouping the millions of dollars needed to develop reliable products and market the service.

Standards drive today's IT

OPERA hopes the publication of an open specification will change all that. Contained in the OPERA Technology White Paper, it can be downloaded from the group. Visitors must go to 'Project Outputs', click on item 'D59' and register with their email address, name and organisation.

The PLC network defined by the OPERA specification includes three types of PLC units: the head-end equipment, which connects the PLC network to the backbone infrastructure; the repeater equipment, which is used to extend the coverage of the network; and the customer premises equipment, which connects the end-user to a PLC access network.