New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



The Next Big Thing

Imagine this: a system that allows you to (1) plug your modem into any electrical outlet in your apartment and surf the web instantly; (2) control and monitor security cameras; (3) control energy consumption by turning your air conditioner/heating system on and off remotely; and (4) connect your computer to your television, which can then be used to present photos as a slide show over your TV set.

Well, you don’t have to imagine anymore – it’s happening now. Princeton House, a condominium on the Upper West Side with over 210 units, has been participating in a pilot project that’s using cutting-edge technology to bring high-speed internet service to the building and its unit-owners.
The pilot project is designed to explore the possible uses of “broadband over power lines” – or BPL – in a multi-dwelling building. There are three companies involved in the test: Con Ed; Earthlink, an internet service provider; and Ambient Corp., a publicly traded technology company whose largest shareholder is Con Ed. Earthlink got involved as part of its commitment to develop “alternate access technologies” to provide consumers with options besides DSL and cable, explains Kevin Brand, vice president for product management for Earthlink.

BPL technology uses a building’s existing electrical wiring and infrastructure to provide internet service, explains John Joyce, president and CEO of Ambient. Here’s how BPL works. The “backhaul”– in this case, a T1 line provided by Earthlink – brings the internet signal to the building. The T1 line is connected to a standard router, which is located in a small cabinet in the building’s basement. The router is then connected to the building’s electrical wiring through couplers developed by Ambient that encircle – but don’t cut into or damage – the wires. The couplers connect the router to the wiring both in the basement and on every third floor of the building using the building’s existing risers. To connect to the internet, unit-owners simply have to plug their modems into any electrical outlet in their apartments and voila! They’re surfing the web. Unit-owners can also connect to the BPL network wirelessly. And, if the power goes out, the BPL network has a battery back-up to keep the network running for a period of time.

“BPL is an attractive alternative to other options,” such as DSL or cable, says Joyce. Because BPL uses a building’s existing wiring and infrastructure, including its risers and conduit, setting up a BPL network is cheaper and less invasive than the alternatives, he explains. For example, when RCN wired Princeton House for cable service, it had to drill through the street to the building’s basement and then drill holes through each of the building’s 17 floors to run the cable to each unit, notes Tim Frost, the condo board’s president. None of that was necessary when the BPL network was set up.

Anything that can be done over the internet can be done over BPL, claims Joyce. So, in addition to providing high-speed internet service, BPL can be used to provide voiceover internet protocol (VoIP) phone service. It can also be used to control and monitor security cameras over the internet.

Jay Cohen, account executive for Argo and managing agent for Princeton House, says BPL’s security camera capabilities could greatly benefit condos and co-ops. For instance, you could connect your security cameras to the BPL network, monitor their footage remotely on a computer, and then burn any significant footage on a DVD for use by law enforcement, your insurance company, or your building’s attorney in a lawsuit. Being able to easily preserve and access such footage could reduce crime and fraud, such as phony slip-and-fall accidents, he notes.

A wider range of applications can be run over BPL than can be run over DSL or cable, including a number of building and energy management applications, observes Joyce. BPL can be used to set up an intercom system. It can also be used to set up residential building controls much like what commercial buildings typically have, so that the building and its unit-owners can control their energy consumption, says Frost. For example, the through-the-wall air conditioners in the units can be connected to the BPL network, allowing unit-owners to turn their A/C on and off remotely via the internet. The pilot project is currently working on similar technology that would allow for remote control of the building’s heating system. And the BPL network could be used to read the building’s meters and verify energy usage.

In fact, it’s BPL’s building and energy management capabilities that initially attracted Frost to the pilot project. He believed that participating would “bring [us] benefits and opportunities.” Frost learned about the pilot project through his job as director of corporate planning for Con Ed. They were already testing BPL in other types of properties, but he urged them to try it in a high-rise building, such as Princeton House. Once the group behind the pilot project agreed, it was relatively easy to get the condo board’s approval. After all, it wasn’t going to cost the unit-owners a dime.

But negotiating an agreement took a while. That’s because the board doesn’t meet often, and the BPL group needed to set up its team for the project – this was the first time BPL was being used in this type of building, explains Joyce. (For similar buildings interested in BPL now, it would probably take only weeks to sign the agreement and get the network installed and working, he notes.) Also, the board members had a lot of questions and wanted assurances that BPL was safe, adds Frost.

(Because of his ties to Con Ed, Frost had another board member work with the condo’s attorney on drafting the agreement and recused himself from the vote on it.) Joyce says the board’s main concerns seemed to be eliminating any liability and ensuring that installing and running the BPL network wouldn’t be invasive, disrupt the unit-owners, affect the building’s electric service, or create any other problems.

Once the board approved the agreement, it only took a matter of days to set up the BPL network, says Joyce. The primary use of the network so far has been for internet access, with about 30 units currently participating. But demos of the BPL network’s other possible uses have been set up, many in Frost’s apartment. From a computer connected to the BPL network, Frost can access the internet, turn his lights and A/C on and off, and monitor footage from a video camera filming the street below. He has a VoIP phone as well as a phone that can be used as an intercom.

Also, using Microsoft’s new Media Center software, his television is connected to his computer, which can be used as a digital recording device. And photos stored on his computer can be viewed as a slide show over his television.

The BPL network has been up and running since February 2005 and, so far, feedback from the participating unit-owners has been good. “Everyone’s excited we’re doing something interesting,” Frost says. And the speed of the internet connection is comparable to that of DSL or cable, notes Cohen. There were a few problems at first with Earthlink, which is handling customer service for participating unit-owners, but those were worked out, points out Frost. The project has “proven the technology will work,” adds Brand. The next phase in the building is control of the A/C units over the internet, he notes. And the board has been exploring the possibility of replacing its antiquated intercom system with a BPL-enabled one. Frost expects that it would be better and cheaper then a traditional intercom system, which requires its own wiring.

Frost looks forward to implementing the building and energy management applications over the BPL network in the near future. The unit-owners can save on utilities if they could control their heating and air conditioning over the internet. And the building can save money on certain systems that are better and cheaper to set up and run over a BPL network, such as the intercom system. Cohen also believes that having a BPL network is a “great plus” for the building and “boosts the value of the units.”

Brand reports that they still need to figure out the overall pricing for setting up a BPL network, but he expects the cost to be competitive. While it’s unclear when BPL will be commercially available, Joyce says that any interested boards should contact Matt Hicks of Ambient at (617) 332-0004.

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