Texas to get broadband over its power lines

Current Communications teams up with a Texas electric company to offer broadband service over power lines.

Two Texas companies have announced a plan to offer high-speed Internet service over the power grid.

The plan was announced on Monday by , a service provider that specializes in broadband service over power lines (BPL), and , the largest electric company in Texas.

The companies estimate that roughly 2 million homes and businesses in northern Texas will be able to subscribe to the new service when the network is complete. Current Communications--which has built a similar network over Cincinnati's power lines with local utility company Cinergy--will design, build and operate the new broadband network. Deployments will begin in 2006, the companies said.

The purpose of the new network is twofold. First, it will allow TXU to monitor the health of its power network. If an outage occurs, the network, which is based on Internet Protocol, can send alerts immediately. Eventually, the utility could even use the network to remotely read meters and switch power on or off.

Secondly, BPL will enable TXU to develop a new revenue stream. The broadband network will be laid on top of the existing power infrastructure, and TXU will then lease this infrastructure to broadband providers such as Current.

"This agreement is a milestone for Current as well as for BPL and illustrates the economic advantages of driving multiple applications across a single large-scale network deployment," William Berkman, chairman and co-founder of Current, said in a statement.

Service speeds and pricing details haven't been released, but Current said the network will have enough capacity to offer customers a "triple play" package, which would include telephony, TV service and high-speed Internet access. Users will be able to access the high-speed broadband network by plugging a device into an electrical outlet in the wall.

BPL is not a new technology. People have been experimenting with building communication networks over power lines since the 1950s. But it hasn't caught on due to its low speed, low functionality and high development cost.

Adoption has also been slowed by technical hurdles. For example, the technology has interfered with local emergency radios and Ham radios. But experts say these issues have been worked out and that interference is no longer a problem.

As a result, BPL is finally beginning to catch on. More than 50 utilities across the country are looking into it. Duke Power and Progress Energy in North Carolina, as well as Con Edison in New York, are . Current is already offering service to about 50,000 customers in Ohio using power lines from Cinergy. And Chantilly, Va.-based broadband service provider Communication Technologies is offering BPL service in Manassas, Va.

The technology has also caught the eye of large investors. Earlier this year, search giant Google, media conglomerate Hearst and bankers at Goldman Sachs invested in Current.

The emergence of BPL as a viable alternative to DSL and cable modem service comes at a time when the nation's cable operators and phone companies are spending billions of dollars to upgrade their networks. The battle for control of the broadband pipe into the home has intensified: telephone companies are moving into the TV business, and cable operators are offering voice service.

Although many people have access to two broadband options, some consumers have said they still want more choices. BPL could provide that third alternative. The sheer ubiquity of power lines makes it a promising option. But the equipment and semiconductors needed to build these networks are still expensive, which could prevent large-scale deployments. Still, some experts hope that BPL will eventually become a standard alternative to DSL or cable Internet service for consumers and businesses.

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