Start-up looks to plug into the high-speed Net

A Dallas-based start-up wins a U.S. patent on a process it says can send data, video and voice over electric wires at speeds thousands of times faster than current high-speed Internet access technologies.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
The quest to send high-speed information over power lines has taken another step out of the science fiction realm and into reality.

Dallas-based start-up Media Fusion has won a U.S. patent on a process it says can send data, video and voice over electric wires at speeds thousands of times faster than current high-speed Internet access technologies.

Employing this system, a user could plug a computer or TV directly into an electrical grid through certain hardware technology to connect to the Internet at super-high speeds, the company claims.

The patent represents a critical endorsement for the young company, which has struggled to convince investors and partners of its technology's viability, even while keeping most details closely under wraps. At the same time, Media Fusion is moving closer to testing the technology in the field, lining up partners for initial trials.

"[The patent] has made our lives a lot simpler," said Luke Stewart, Media Fusion's chairman and the inventor of the technology. "This lets people know the government recognizes the value of the science and the veracity of the technology."

If Media Fusion's technology does work, it could radically shake the telecommunications market. Telephone and cable companies have invested billions of dollars to ready their networks for high-speed data transmissions.

The entry of a new technology that offers speeds far faster than existing services could force a seismic shift in the broadband access market. Additionally, it could spread the high-speed Net to rural regions that don't yet have broadband access.

All these possibilities are contingent on one, small factor: the technology has to work.

Founder Luke Stewart says he has run lab tests, but the technology hasn't yet run over a power company's network. The two-year-old firm has kept many of the details of its technology protected by nondisclosure agreements lest larger, well-capitalized firms try to steal its system, Stewart said.

Legal experts say a patent gives the technology merit, but add that it is far from a guarantee that it will function in the field.

"Whether you get a patent or not, it doesn't tell you anything," said James Pooley, a patent attorney with Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich. "It's one government bureaucrat deciding, informed by whatever he or she is able to do in a short period of time to ensure [the technology] is novel."

Other power line systems have been tested in the field, with giant Nortel Networks leading most research. But these tests achieved only mixed success, as the companies found that interference on the power lines and obstructions created by transformers limited signal speeds.

Stewart says his technology won't run into the same problems, because his idea involves using power lines much differently than did Nortel and its partners.

Media Fusion's moment of truth is getting closer. A small group of mostly rural power co-ops has agreed to serve as ground zero for Media Fusion's first tests.

"We have been asked to be one of the test sites, and we're looking forward to that," said Tom Garrett, general manager of Cimmaron Electric, a small Oklahoma power company. Garrett has not yet seen a full demonstration of the technology, he said. "That's kind of what we're waiting for."

At the same time, Media Fusion has agreed to deploy its systems on a much wider basis through a larger group of power co-ops and municipal utility systems, working with a coalition named Integrated Opportunities.

Media Fusion is in the process of building 70,000 hardware devices needed to decode information sent over power lines, and it aims to ship the product to partner firms in small towns and rural areas.

"Ordinarily the hardest people to reach are the ones in rural areas," said Garen Ewbank, one of the partners in Integrated Opportunities. "The idea here is to show that it's just as easy to take the service to outlying areas as to downtown Atlanta."