Power line broadband gets popular with tech firms

Intel, Cisco and Motorola are helping shape standards and fund companies developing broadband-over-power-line technology.

The technology that allows the internal power wiring in a home to deliver broadband service is getting some heavy-hitting endorsements from large technology companies including Intel, Motorola and Cisco Systems.

On Wednesday, the companies threw their weight behind a group called the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, which develops standards and specifications for businesses and service providers offering broadband-over-power-line, or BPL, service into the home.

Intel, Linksys, a division of Cisco Systems, and Motorola all signed on as new sponsor members of the group. Matt Theall, a marketing manager at Intel, also has been elected president of the alliance. In addition, the group developed a new Implementers' Forum Board of Directors to get more industry involvement in developing and implementing standards. The group includes representatives from the sponsor companies, as well as Comcast, EarthLink, RadioShack, Sharp and Sony.

Also on Wednesday, Intel and Motorola were named as two investors in Intellon, a start-up that makes integrated circuits based on HomePlug's specifications. The company said it has raised $24.5 million in new funding. BCE Capital, which is affiliated with Bell Canada, Canada's largest communications company, led the funding round. Other investors included Goldman Sachs, Intel Capital and Motorola Ventures. Previous investors, including Comcast Interactive Capital, Duchossois, Fidelity Ventures and Philips Venture Capital Fund, also contributed to the funding round.

For several years, many have hoped that BPL would allow electric companies to become a viable third alternative to the cable and telephone companies providing high-speed access to the Internet. But technical limitations and interference problems have held BPL back from reaching its promised potential.

The involvement of big tech names in helping develop broadband over power line technology could be a signal that it is finally coming of age. In addition to companies like Intel and Motorola, others such as Google and IBM also have taken notice of the technology. Last month, Google invested in Current Communications Group, a BPL service provider. IBM announced it would partner with Houston-based power utility CenterPoint Energy to build a BPL network.

Still, experts say it will take much more industry involvement before the technology truly becomes viable.

"It's encouraging to see Google and Intel interested in the technology," said Joe Laszlo, research director for broadband at JupiterResearch. "On the other hand, what needs to happen is for the diverse players to come together and form a standard rather than proprietary ways of doing it."

HomePlug is one group that is trying to solve this problem. There are also efforts being explored in other groups. The IEEE and the Consumer Electronics Association are forming study groups to look into the technology too.

"There are lots of groups exploring standards efforts," Laszlo said. "It would be better for the industry, and we'd get standards faster if these efforts were more concentrated. But we're just not at that point yet."

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