FCC checks out Net over power lines

How practical would it be to deliver broadband service to homes and offices through existing power outlets? The federal agency says it's ready to take a close look at its feasibility.

Richard Shim
Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
2 min read
Moves to plug homes and offices into the Internet via existing power outlets have been given a nudge forward by the Federal Communications Commission.

The agency said late Wednesday that it plans to file a notice of inquiry in the Federal Register into the viability of using power lines to provide broadband and Internet services. While it is unclear whether broadband over power line (BPL) will be less expensive to set up than cable or digital subscriber lines (DSL), the inquiry offers the promise of a third way to deliver broadband into the home.

"The development of multiple broadband capable platforms--be it power lines, Wi-Fi, satellite, laser or licensed wireless--will transform the competitive broadband landscape and reap dramatic windfalls for American consumers and the economy," Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, said in a statement.

In an effort to extend broadband services further into rural areas, the FCC and others in Washington have been looking at alternatives to cable and DSL, including the opening up of an additional wireless spectrum. The number of broadband subscribers in rural areas and small cities often do not outweigh the cost to networks and service providers of setting up service in such areas.

The point of the FCC inquiry is to gather comment from the public regarding potential interference effects, to discover the state of power-line technology and to lay out the measurement procedures for testing emissions.

"We're hoping to encourage (BPL services to) allow for more choice in the market. What we're trying to ask with the inquiry is how the technology should be treated, so that it doesn't interfere with anything," said Alan Scrime, a divisional chief in the FCC's office of engineering and technology.

The inquiry will be into the use of two types of power-line technology. The first is Access BPL, under which 1,000-volt to 40,000-volt power lines would bring broadband service into households and businesses. The other is for in-house BPL, which uses existing electrical wiring in a home or building to create a network of computers, printers and other devices.

Manufacturers have already been working with a form of in-house BPL, referred to as power-line networking. Power-line networking is based on the HomePlug Powerline Alliance's HomePlug 1.0.1 standard.

"This is all technically feasible. The question is how to do it while still being a good neighbor in this environment," said Scrime.

The FCC noted that existing systems designed to couple radio-frequency energy to alternating-current electrical wiring to provide communications have been successful, but have operated with limited transmission speeds. However, with the recent availability of faster chipsets and improved modulation techniques, transmission could be accelerated and broadband could be made more accessible, the agency said.

The agency's notice of inquiry will take effect when it is published in the Federal Register in coming weeks, said an FCC representative. The comment period is currently scheduled to last 45 days, with a 30-day reply period.