Telecomm over the power line in UK
Source: (press release)
Date: 10/8/97    Record No.: 10508
Contact: Northern Telecom

Telecomm over the power line in UK

Company Press Release (see follow-up below)

Nortel (Northern Telecom) and Norweb Communications Achieve Technology Breakthrough That Will Open a New Wave of Internet Growth

LONDON, Oct. 8 - Nortel (Northern Telecom) and Norweb Communications, a business unit of United Utilities plc. of Great Britain, today announced that they have developed jointly a new technology that allows data to be transferred over electrical power lines into the home at speeds of more than one megabit per second-up to 10 times faster than ISDN, currently the fastest generally available speed. The breakthrough has the potential to open a new wave of demand for Internet services in the UK and Europe.

Nortel has developed the technology at its European Research and Development laboratories in Harlow, UK, in co-operation with Norweb Communications. Recent trials on the Norweb Communications network have been completed successfully and the technology is available for deployment.

The technology, which enables electrical companies to convert their power infrastructures into information access networks, will be initially marketed in the UK, Europe and Asia Pacific.

It allows electrical companies to provide a service that solves the three major problems facing international Internet market acceptance-access to consumers' homes, data transmission rates and capital cost:

- By giving customers access to the Internet through their existing electrical supply system, the technology is available to virtually anyone. It offers permanent on-line connection with the potential for lower charges;

- The new technology enables data to be transmitted at rates of more than one megabit per second by using a patented technology that screens the data from electrical interference on the host power line, a long sought-after goal in telecommunications;

- Investment costs for the electrical companies are low compared to those envisioned for other broadband data access systems. Due to the nature of this technology, it can be rolled out in discrete, targeted phases. Utilities not wishing to operate data services also have the option of charging a right-to-use fee to an operating company for accessing their plant. End users require a computer card comparable in cost to a conventional ISDN terminal adapter, but offering 10 times the peak bandwidth.

The new technology will enable the introduction of Internet-based applications such as electronic commerce, teleworking, web broadcast media, entertainment and Internet telephony on a mass market scale.

The two companies have been working together on this development for the last three years and it is subject to a number of patents filed by Nortel and Norweb Communications. Norweb Communications is widely recognized within the power sector as a leader in research into broadband communications over power lines, having started work in this area in 1990.

Electricity utilities in Europe and the Asia Pacific region have already expressed significant interest.

Peter Dudley, a vice-president of Nortel, comments: ``The rate of Internet take up and the volume of data traffic carried over the Internet has been one of the most striking business developments of the current decade, but speed of access remains a bottleneck for most users. As one of the first practical low-cost answers to the problem of high-speed access to the Internet this new technology will unleash the next wave of net growth.''

Mark Ballett, Managing Director of Norweb Communications, comments: ``Norweb Communications has championed the use of electrical networks for voice and data services for several years and we are delighted to now be in a position to announce the launch of the first commercial products. This technology will allow us to use existing infrastructure to establish a strongly differentiated service offering in the northwest residential and small business market.''

Nortel will be opening a conformance center in Harlow, UK, for hardware and software suppliers who are interested in certifying their products for use on this new service.

Norweb Communications, part of United Utilities plc, provides an extensive range of advanced voice and data services and has achieved significant success in providing resilient networks for businesses throughout the northwest region of the UK. The company plans to use power line technology to provide public access networks for residential customers in the region.

United Utilities has combined capability in electricity, gas and telecom. This new technology will strengthen its competitiveness as a multi-utility service provider.

Nortel had a 1996 turnover of $US 3 billion in Europe, operating both independently and through its joint ventures with the Lagardere Group in France (Matra Communications and Nortel Matra Cellular), Olivetti SpA in Italy (Sixtel) and Daimler-Benz Aerospace AG in Germany (Nortel Dasa Network Systems). The company employs approximately 16,000 people across Europe in Research and Development, manufacturing and sales.

Nortel works with customers worldwide to design build and integrate digital networks - for information, entertainment, education and business - offering one of the broadest choices of network solutions in the industry.

Nortel had 1996 revenues of $US 12.8 billion and has approximately 68,000 employees worldwide.

UFTO Note -- Followup re UK internet on Powerline (UFTO Note 22 Oct)

Here are two comments on the Nortel Norweb press release of Oct. 8. The first is from Wired Magazine's wehsite, and points out some of the reasons why this technology may not take the world by storm right away. The second from Reuters gives a bit more technical and business detail.

The Boy Who Cried 'Net Access!'
by Chris Oakes WIRED

4:45am 10.Oct.97.PDT Some sizable questions surround Wednesday's announcement by Canada's Northern Telecom and Britain's Norweb Communications of a technology Nortel has developed that enables high-speed Net access through existing electric lines - giving utilities an apparent easy-in to becoming communication providers via their own power-line infrastructures.

To convert power grids to data networks, says Nortel vice president of market development Graham Strange, the company's design "modulates the data signal onto the power line and creates what is essentially a LAN environment."

Having created a transmission protocol sufficiently robust to make its way through the heavy-duty noise of an electrical line at up to 1 Mbps, the company says, any power line can do the job. Yet there are some not-so-small technical and economic issues that may keep the local power company from rolling out the tech without some careful analysis. Especially those in North America.

The Nortel layout leverages a power grid's tree-and-branch structure of substation-to-transformer-to-customer. A data signal can comfortably travel over existing lines from a customer's house to the local transformer, but a problem arises then. Data won't survive a trip through the extra-heavy noise of electrical current at the transformer, necessitating the construction of an alternate route to shuttle the data signal further up the network. And unless the power company already has separate communications lines running to that transformer node, new lines will have to be installed to finish the data circuit.

"You do have to split it out, because you can't get it through the transformer," Strange said. But that cost can be justified, he said, when each transformer is serving 100 to 300 customers. This is usually the case in the UK, but when each transformer only serves a handful of people - commonly 10 to 12 people in North America - the network's tree-and-branch structure is too small for the job. And for those utilities that might choose to invest in new communications lines to their transformers, the prospect starts to lose its payoff.

Acknowledging that this could represent a significant investment for some, Strange points out that many power companies already have usable communication lines running into their transformers - and in many cases they are fiber-optic lines, which are ideal for carrying the data signal. "But other utilities will have to invest in infrastructure at the sites," Strange said. "The economics of this becomes a challenge for some utilities - it's a tougher business case when you try to fit it into that environment."

A potential solution is to somehow bypass the transformer with the data signal, requiring it to make a jump between low- and high-voltage lines. Strange says there are a series of issues in making that work, and that Nortel will be trying to come up with a solution in concert with UK electric utility Norweb. "There are issues. They will take time."

Meanwhile, Strange reports that calls by interested British and North American utilities have been pouring in.

Another variable is the system's supported data speeds. Nortel says symmetric data rates of 500 Kbps to 1 Mbps have been achieved. But Strange says the consistency of these rates will depend on the noisiness of local lines. "With a lot of noise on the lines, the protocols will slow down. It dynamically deals with that." To boot, as with cable-modem access, available bandwidth at the transmitter will have to be shared, presenting the possibility that during heavy traffic periods, each user's speed will be affected. Still, under even bad conditions, a minimum speed of 500 Kbps can reasonably be expected, Strange says.

Norweb, Nortel To Plug Clients Into Internet

By Kirstin Ridley, Reuters

LONDON - Canada's Northern Telecom (Nortel) and Britain's Norweb Communications today unveiled new technology allowing reliable, low-cost, high-speed access to the Internet computer network through the domestic electricity supply.

In a move heralding the first competition between electricity companies and telecommunications carriers, the two groups said their patented technology would allow power firms to convert their infrastructures into information access networks.

Having "fixed the fuzz" of electrical interference on power lines, the companies said they could shunt data -- and possibly voice -- over power lines into the home at up to one megabit per second.

This is up to ten times faster than ISDN, the fastest currently available speed for domestic users.

Although it is slower than rival ADSL technology being developed by British Telecommunications , which upgrades copper wires, Norweb and Nortel's technology is much cheaper for operators to install.

All consumers need is the equipment developed by Nortel and Norweb -- an extra card for personal computers, some software to handle subscription, security and authentication services and a small box which is installed next to the electricity meter.

This will send and receive data and is in turn linked to a personal computer through an ordinary coaxial cable.

Peter Dudley, vice president of Nortel, said the groups had had an "absolutely spectacular" amount of interest from electricity companies in Britain and abroad who are keen to offer the service to consumers.

"The race is on to be first," he told Reuters.

Prices will be set by electricity companies who offer the service. But consumers currently spend an average of 20 to 30 pounds ($48.6) per month for Internet access -- and the new service offers permanent access without telephone costs.

"Assuming they continue to spend at that rate, it is not unreasonable to assume that is the kind of tariffing that may be submitted," Dudley said.

The Canadian telecoms equipment maker and Norweb, part of England's multi-utility United Utilities, said their technology was fast enough for most future domestic or small office applications and was cost effective enough to allow operators returns on investments.

"As one of the first practical, low cost answers to the problem of high speed access to the Internet, this technology will unleash the next wave of net growth," Dudley said.

The two companies have developed a "specialized signaling scheme" which allows them to carry data traffic between local power substations and homes, effectively turning the electricity supply into a communications network.

Each substation is then linked by fiber-optic circuits to a central switch -- and from there into the world-wide computer network.

After 18 months of refining and upgrading a prototype and promising "oodles of bandwidth", the companies said they planned to market the technology in Europe and the Asia Pacific region.

"We are ready to ship in volume," said Ian Vance, vice president and chief scientist at Nortel Europe.

Banking on high growth and good economic returns, Norweb hopes to attract around 200 customers in a marketing pilot in north western England in the second quarter of 1998 before rolling out the service.