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IBM bringing broadband over power line to rural America

Company signs $9.6 million contract with International Broadband Electric Communications in aim to bring high-speed Internet access to rural communities.

IBM has been hired to help rural Americans get broadband access using power lines.

On Wednesday, Big Blue announced it has signed a $9.6 million contract with International Broadband Electric Communications to bring the technology to rural America where it hopes to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity to millions of people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get it. IBM and IBEC, which will build and manage the networks, are working with over a dozen electricity cooperatives in seven states, The Wall Street Journal reported.

For years, people have hoped broadband-over-power line technology, or BPL, would allow power companies to become the third alternative in the broadband market, competing against cable operators and telephone companies. But technical limitations and interference issues with local emergency radios and short-wave ham radios have stood in the way of mass adoption.

In recent years, new modulation techniques supported by other technological advances have helped BPL evolve. Most services today are capable of delivering between 512Kbps and 3Mbps of throughput, which is comparable to most DSL offerings.

In rural areas in particular, BPL technology could finally bring high-speed Internet access to people who otherwise couldn't get it. Traditional phone and cable companies often find it too expensive to deploy new infrastructure to provide service to the far reaches of rural America.

BPL could provide an affordable technology for reaching this population because the infrastructure is already built. More than 900 electricity cooperatives in the U.S. cover 75 percent of the land mass in the U.S.

The technology and its promise of leveraging existing infrastructure has caught the attention of other major players, such as Google and EarthLink. But so far, BPL deployments have been slow to take off. According to the United Power Line Council, there were approximately 35 BPL deployments around the United States as of last year. As of the middle of last year, there were about 5,000 BPL subscribers in the U.S., according to the Federal Communications Commission.

But the big problem for BPL is that fact that there are still complaints of interference with amateur radio operators. Several companies once hot on the technology have now scaled back their hopes and are using the BPL networks to offer smart-grid monitoring. Last May, DirecTV and Current Communications sold a flagship BPL deployment in Dallas to the local utility, which plans to use the network for smart-grid monitoring.

Another company called Comtek deployed a BPL network in Manassas, Va. But after persistent complaints from radio operators, it has decided to also focus efforts on providing smart-grid monitoring.

The BPL movement was also dealt a blow earlier this year when a federal appeals court sided in part with amateur radio operators who challenged FCC rules designed to speed the nascent Internet service's rollout. The judges in the case sent the rules back to the FCC with instructions to clarify is reasoning for its rules and to publicize its studies more fully.

While IBM and IBEC have the right idea when it comes to focusing on rural and underserved markets, it seems like they still have an uphill battle in overcoming interference issues. There is no doubt that it is important to get broadband access to rural America. On the campaign trail, President-elect Barack Obama even mentioned the need for ubiquitous broadband. But there are other technologies, such as WiMax and other 4G wireless, that may offer faster speeds with fewer technical issues. Recently opened "white space" spectrum could help fill this need in rural areas. The problem is that deploying any new infrastructure whether it's wired or wireless won't be cheap. And it could take years before rural Americans ever get high-speed Internet.