Do It All Through Power Lines

Back to Contents of Issue: August 2001

A power line communications experiment gets underway in Shikoku -- the key word being "experiment."

by Kyoko Fujimoto

THIS JUNE, ON THE ISLAND OF Shikoku -- home of the best udon in Japan -- a hundred or so houses underwent an odd renovation: The electric meters were outfitted with servers.

The houses are part of an experiment in power line communications (PLC) being run by Shikoku Electric, the island's power company, and other companies. The idea is to send data through the electrical grid so that, among other things, appliances in the home can send and receive information and be remotely controlled through the Net.

"There'll be a washing machine that tells you tomorrow's weather, or it will be possible to control your VCR from outside the house," says Yoshikazu Nakanishi, chief engineer at Shikoku Electric.

For now, though, the experimental system is simply being field tested, and is thus rather limited. Called OpenPLANET, it offers email and local information (e.g., there's a sale at the neighborhood supermarket) through a keyboard-less terminal called the OP Board (see photo). With no keyboard, the OP Board's email functionality is rather limited, allowing only pre-set responses like yes, no, and OK. The embedded browser can access only HTML pages stored in the meter server, which has no direct Net connection (a private PHS wireless network operated by Shikoku Electric is being used for the field test).

The excitement of OpenPLANET lies not in its current beta-test state, but in its potential. Particularly intriguing is the ability to control home appliances remotely online. Home automation systems enable remote control to a certain extent -- users can turn the second-floor lights off from the first -- but OpenPLANET will take it a step further. "With home automation, even if the system finds a burglar, there's no way to let us know if we're away from home. But [OpenPLANET] will be able to call our keitai to let us know," says Nakanishi.

On the Net-access front, Shikoku Electric and other power companies could theoretically challenge NTT. For now, regulations form a barrier. "Everyone is pushing the government to change the laws on PLC communication," notes Carlos Camacho, the overseas analyst for OpenPLANET.

In the meantime, Camacho says, expect the system to see widespread use in the industrial arena first, and then later in homes. "The industrial field will see commercial solutions by the end of the year in control and monitoring, as well as automation products. The residential area will take more time."

We'll be watching.

Note: The function "email this page" is currently not supported for this page.