Broadband over power lines? Technology surges forward

Some innovative utility companies are developing a way to send high-speed internet access via ubiquitous power lines, of all things—making every electrical outlet an always-on web connection. Industry watchers say that if the emerging technology works, it has the potential to help close the technology access gap in rural communities, bringing parents of students who live in remote areas into the digital age quickly.

If this sounds shocking, consider this: St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. and other utilities already are testing the technology, and many consider it feasible.

This truly plug-and-play technology, if proven safe, has the blessings of federal regulators looking to bolster broadband competition, lower consumer prices, and bridge the digital divide in rural areas.

Because virtually every building has a power plug, it “could simply blow the doors off the provision of broadband,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael Powell said in January. For competition’s sake, “absolutely, we would applaud it,” says Edmond Thomas, chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology.

While existing providers of broadband through cable TV lines or phone wires consider the technology intriguing, they stress that talk of it has been around for years, with nothing to show for it.

Existing broadband providers such as St. Louis-based Charter Communications Inc., the nation’s third-largest cable company, believe they have the edge because they are known entities and can bundle high-speed internet access with video and even telephone service in some markets.

If ever deployed, power-line broadband “certainly is competition, but we feel our product would stand up well,” said David Andersen, a spokesman for Charter, which has nearly 1.1 million high-speed internet customers.

Digital power lines are believed to be able to carry data at roughly the same speeds as cable or DSL lines. And because electricity is more prevalent in homes than cable or even telephone lines, a vast new communications infrastructure could be born overnight‐most notably in rural areas, where broadband access has lagged.

There, the scarcity of potential subscribers hasn’t justified the high cost of laying cable or building satellite towers. A December 2001 report by the FCC-created National Exchange Carrier Association estimated it would cost about $10.9 billion to wire all of rural America.

Now Ameren, which serves about 1.5 million electric customers in Missouri and Illinois, is studying whether its portfolio could include broadband over its medium-voltage distribution systems—and, more importantly, whether it would be profitable.

Keith Brightfield, heading the project for Ameren, says it’s too early to say when the company could deploy the technology, and the utility makes no claims it can deliver broadband cheaper than current providers. The goal, he said, is to be competitive at internet access without losing focus on Ameren’s bread-and-butter energy business.

Companies have found that turning power lines into a stable, high-speed system of data transmission is tricky. Network interference and such things as transformers and surge arrestors have hindered broadband delivery.

But over the past few years, many of those hurdles have been cleared with improved technology. Brightfield says previous efforts to deploy the technology in Europe failed because their electrical system differs from that in the United States.

Still, there’s no shortage of skepticism.

“I think they’re a long way from proving it, let’s leave it there,” said Larry Carmichael, a project manager with the Electric Power Research Institute. “The tests to date have been so small as far as looking at the financial and technical viability. It’s still at the very early stage of development.”

The technology works like this, proponents explain: Information is carried either by fiber-optic or telephone lines to skip disruptive high-voltage lines, then it is injected into the power grid downstream, onto medium-voltage wires.

Because signals can make it only so far before breaking apart, special electronic devices on the line catch packets of data, then reamplify and repackage them before shooting them out again—or other technologies use more elaborate techniques that detour the signal around transformers.

See these related links:


Information Technology Association of America

Power Line Communications Association

Electric Power Research Institute

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