Unlike previous broadband-over-powerline concept, this effort is designed solely to connect utility devices to the smart grid.

Atheros Communications announced it has been awarded a $4.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop powerline chips designed to provide two-way data communications over existing AC wiring.

The chips are based on the Green PHY specification, which will be published by the HomePlug Powerline Alliance this month, to meet the low-power requirements of utilities and to comply with the IEEE 1901 global networking standard, Atheros said.

The $4.5 million grant is a matching grant, so Atheros will contribute the other $4.5 million to develop the chips, which represent a resurrection of the broadband-over-powerline concept that never really took off. However, this concept is about connecting devices such as thermostats, smart meters and appliances to the smart grid, said Jim Zyren, senior manager of marketing for Atheros' powerline business.

"The idea is to be able to connect electrically powered devices in the home to a smart grid where the utility and home user can monitor and control and take advantage of the pricing that changes throughout the day," Zyren said.

Wireless solutions such as Zigbee and Wi-Fi have emerged as a primary candidate for this type of connection, but Zyren said there is a need for both a wired and a wireless connection given the fact that some buildings, because of the way they are constructed, aren't conducive to wireless connectivity. Zyren said this is especially the case in Europe, where significantly older homes can block Wi-Fi signals. Zyren said utilities need a reliable way to get into the home when wireless technologies fail.

Atheros also is developing a Wi-Fi/powerline combo for the smart grid. The idea is that a mesh standard that encompasses Wi-Fi and powerline — along with the Multimedia over Coax (MoCA) home networking platform — could advance the creation of standardized in-home systems. That would essentially marry broadband multimedia distribution with smart-grid functions.

"As you look ahead to the digital home of the future, more and more mobile devices are being served by a wireless connection," Zyren said. "Why not harness the two and increase the total networking capacity beyond the gigabit range? Why not have wireless there to support any mobile devices or anything else, depending on what the best path is. The wireless and powerline router we're developing will have a best-path selection that is transparent to the user."

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