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Broadband to get power boost in Big Apple

EarthLink plans to begin testing power line broadband connections in Manhattan in November.

If technology that transmits Internet traffic across power lines can make it in New York City, it can make it anywhere.

That's what Internet service provider EarthLink is banking on as it prepares to test a new broadband service over Consolidated Edison's power lines in Manhattan.

EarthLink and Con Edison have teamed with Ambient, a power line communications technology developer, to get the trial rolling. The companies plan to launch the pilot in November with one apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said John Joyce, president and CEO of Ambient. Final details regarding the pilot are still being finalized, he added.

EarthLink, Con Edison and Ambient have been working together since 2002 on technology that provides broadband services directly over the nation's power grid into homes through an electrical socket.

Two years ago, the companies launched their first trial together in Briar Cliff Manor, N.Y., a suburb of the Big Apple. The initial footprint of the network, which has made power line communications available to nearly 1,000 homes in the area, is nearing completion, Joyce said. Now the companies plan to expand the trial, which had provided broadband services to a handful of residents, to between 100 and 200 homes.

EarthLink and Con Edison are both investors in Ambient. EarthLink owns less than 5 percent of the company's stock, while Con Edison owns just more than 20 percent.

Using power lines to access the Internet is an idea that's been around for years. Because electricity travels at a lower frequency than Internet signals, the two can co-exist on the same line without interference.

Power lines are an attractive broadband delivery method because they already exist in just about every home in the United States. Internet service providers such as EarthLink view the nation's power grid as a perfect infrastructure alternative to leasing cable or local loop telephone facilities from competitors that are also delivering broadband services.

But the technology has its problems. Opponents to power line communications have warned of interference. In April, the Federal Communications Commission investigated the technology and found interference issues among the military, some public-safety organizations and amateur radio operators. To address those concerns, regulators last week established a set of rules for deploying the technology.

"We've already been addressing these technical issues in our trials," Joyce said. "But now, the FCC rules will help utilities and municipalities eliminate the guesswork that goes into deploying the services. I think we'll see more of them taking a serious look at power line technology."

New York is not the only place EarthLink has been testing this technology. It recently completed a trial with Progress Energy in Raleigh, N.C., and it is currently in the early stages of another trial with Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C.

Ambient is also working on other trials, including a small one in Idaho with Idacom.