IBM teams up for broadband over power line

Big Blue is partnering with CenterPoint Energy in Houston to turn power lines into a high-speed broadband network.

IBM is teaming up with CenterPoint Energy to test technology that could turn power lines into a high-speed network capable of delivering Internet access to consumers and providing real-time monitoring of the power grid, the companies said Monday.

IBM will help electric utility operator CenterPoint design, build and manage the new network. CenterPoint has already opened a center at one of its facilities in Houston to test the technology. In June, the utility started a limited pilot program providing broadband over power line, or BPL, service to roughly 220 consumers in the Houston area.

The pilot is expected to be completed in August. CenterPoint will then evaluate the possibility of market deployment. In the pilot program, CenterPoint is seeing download speeds up to two to three times faster than cable Internet service, a company representative said.

For several years, people have thought that BPL could allow electric companies to become a viable third alternative to the cable and telephone companies providing high-speed access to the Internet. But technical issues have kept the technology from being deployed widely. What's more, critics say turning electric utilities into consumer broadband providers will cost the industry billions of dollars because of the need to upgrade existing electrical grids.

But there has been renewed interest in the technology as companies such as Google make significant investments in companies delivering BPL service. Supporters of the technology also say consumer broadband service is only one application that energy companies such as CenterPoint are considering as they look to deploy BPL technology.

"A lot of people have been focusing on BPL as the third competitive leg in the broadband market," said Raymond Blair, vice president for IBM's Broadband Over Powerlines initiatives. "But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The main reason utilities want BPL is to manage their businesses better."

Because BPL essentially turns the electrical grid into an Internet-based network, every device attached to the grid will be able to communicate with other devices on it. This means BPL technology has the potential to develop a "smart grid," which could allow for such services as automated meter reading, real-time system monitoring, preventive maintenance and diagnostics, outage detection and restoration, as well as other potential applications.

"Today, utilities are generally unable to see beyond our substations," said a CenterPoint representative. "But with BPL we could see the health and status of our network down to the outlet in the home. These smart grid technologies should result in improved system reliability and service for our electric customers."

An Internet-enabled power grid could also have helped prevent the Northeast power blackout in 2003, said IBM's Blair.

"Power companies would have been able to shut down parts of the network," he said. "Or they could have identified a weak transformer and proactively fixed it before it caused the entire blackout."

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