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Coming Soon to an Electrical Outlet Near You: Powerline Broadband

2 Mar, 2003 By: Holly J. Wagner

With broadband household penetration in the United States hovering at about 20 percent, providers are battling for the hearts and eyes of consumers.

So far, broadband access has been limited to telecommunications companies providing digital subscriber lines (DSL) or satellite and cable connections. But another industry -- electric utility companies -- has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to offer broadband access to homes.

“Something like a powerline carrier could blow the doors off the provision of broadband,” FCC chairman Michael Powell said at an open commission meeting in January.

Informa Media Group projects nearly 500,000 powerline communications (PLC) subscribers worldwide by the end of 2003, rising to 1.8 million in 2006.

The technology that turns ordinary electrical outlets into Internet connections is little known to American consumers, but at least two industry groups -- the United Powerline Council and the HomePlug Powerline Alliance -- want to change that.

The groups were formed to develop and lobby for PLC. The technology could be a boon to consumers for several reasons. For one, since most homes in the United States are already wired for electricity, the infrastructure already exists. That means no “last mile” issues like the telcos face. PLC lines operate at speeds of about 20 times faster than a dial-up connection. Utility companies contend they could offer the service cheaper than their fiberoptic and satellite competitors, which dispute the claim.

Part of the powerline advocates' task is to wrest control of Internet access from the companies that have traditionally provided it to consumers. In an extremely competitive market, they are not eager to have another contender on the field. It also won't be easy for newcomers to challenge established providers.

“Basically, powerline technology needs to move quickly in 2003 or it will be too late.

Cable and DSL in the U.S. is now well-entrenched,” said eMarketer analyst Ben Macklin.

“Powerline is still untested commercially. The technology works, but it is unclear if the business model is sound,” he continued. “Do consumers want to mix their electricity and telecom services? Maybe they do, but they need to be convinced that they do -- and that usually takes time.”

A company called Powerline Technologies has recently completed field tests it claims prove the technology can be deployed cost- effectively. Trials were conducted on underground and overhead power lines, said VP Sean Collins.

The technology works similarly to DSL. The current carrying the Internet signal runs parallel to, but not on the same frequency as, the voice or electrical line.

“Digital powerline uses a network, known as a high-frequency conditioned power network (HFCPN), to transmit data and electrical signals. An HFCPN uses a series of conditioning units (CUs) to filter those separate signals,” scholars Scott Baugh and Maciej Matyjas wrote in an analysis for Carnegie Mellon University. “The CU sends electricity to the outlets in the home and data signals to a communication module or ‘service unit.' The service unit provides multiple channels for data, voice, etc.”

The technology has had a few bugs on its way to market. During early testing in the U.K., some radio frequencies in the test areas were jammed.

“By pure chance, British light poles were the perfect size and shape to broadcast Digital PowerLine signals,” Baugh and Matyjas wrote. “The situation posed problems not just because of the frequencies involved, but also because anyone could listen in on the traffic.”

Among opponents of PLC in the United States is the National Association of Broadcasters, which fears the technology will generate interference on AM radio and other established frequencies.

But utility companies are anxious to surmount such problems, partly because increasing deregulation of electrical power has them looking for a source of income to replace what will be lost to anticipated power rates.

Powerline Internet access is commercially available in Germany, Spain, France and Italy.

“In Germany, for example, which could be regarded as one of the more advanced PLC markets in the world, most of the cable infrastructure is unsuitable for high-speed Internet,” Macklin said. “This gives Powerline technology an opportunity to fill the gap, and it is expected that there will be tens of thousands of PLC subscribers in Germany by the end of 2003.”

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