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Electric utilities getting wired

Northern Telecom and British electricity supplier United Utilities announce a plan to provide high-speed Internet access via electric lines.

Northern Telecom (NT) and British electricity supplier United Utilities announced a plan today to provide high-speed Internet access via electric lines.

It is another sign of the move to expand the options for Net access beyond digital subscriber lines, cable modems, and wireless connections.

As reported yesterday, Northern Telecom and United's Norweb subsidiary have been working on a plan that transmits data over the electric lines and into households at more than 1 mbps, more than ten faster than ISDN, a Northern Telecom spokeswoman said.

She cautioned, however, that the technology only was being tested in the United Kingdom, not North America. The U.K.'s electric grid layout in makes the plan more economical than that of North America, at least for now. That's because a transformer in the United Kingdom typically provides power to 100 to 300 people, compared with just 8 to 12 people in the United States, she said.

"Recent trials on the Norweb Communications network have been completed successfully, and the technology is available for deployment," the companies said in a statement. "The breakthrough has the potential to open a new wave of demand for Internet services in the United Kingdom and Europe."

The technology initially will be marketed in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. Users connect to the electric network with a computer card that is comparable in cost to an ISDN modem, the companies added.

Like telecommunications carriers, cable operators, and Internet service providers, electric utilities are a natural to provide Net access because of their huge distribution networks. What they need, however, is a technology to make it work.

Utilities have been eager to jump into the business, spurred on by industry deregulation.

In June, Peco Energy and UtiliCorp United said they would form a company called EnergyOne to offer bundled services for phone, energy, and Internet access in the United States. AT&T and ADT, a security services company, said they would join the effort.