Is broadband set to make power lines sing?

After years of failed promises, the time may be right for accessing the Net over power lines, now that an FCC proposal is galvanizing backers.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
5 min read
Technical limitations have long frustrated attempts to deliver broadband Internet access over power lines, but the idea is once again sparking interest as its backers tout improvements.


What's new:
Momentum is growing again for broadband over power line technology.

Bottom line:
Power lines could soon join coaxial cable, telephone lines and emerging "last mile" wireless technology as pipes to deliver data into homes.

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Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed rules for utility companies that seek to offer Internet access through their electricity grids. The FCC hopes its rules for broadband over power line (BPL) will help jump-start the use of the grid network to deliver high-speed Net access to U.S. households, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas.

"One major objective of Chairman (Michael) Powell is to find ways to encourage broadband for the entire United States," said Ed Thomas, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the FCC. "The more options that are available, and the more capabilities provided, and the more diverse the entry vehicles, the better off we are."

The proposed BPL rules are limited and notably do not address major policy issues affecting the electricity industry that are under the remit of local public utilities commissions. Still, broadband providers and power companies reacted positively to the FCC move, seeing it as a critical first step toward making BPL a reality.

Less than a week after the FCC released its proposal, Internet service provider EarthLink announced it would begin testing a broadband service using power lines leased from Progress Energy, an electricity company that serves the Carolinas and central Florida.

EarthLink's test, announced last Wednesday, involves 500 homes in Wake County, N.C., and could set a major precedent for the nascent BPL industry. In the trial, Progress Energy will deliver a packet-based broadband signal through its power lines and then broadcast the signal using Wi-Fi equipment from Amperion. Test customers access the network using wireless broadband routers installed in their homes.

"This might give us the ability to have coverage where DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable might not be," said Kevin Brand, a vice president of product management at EarthLink. "We're in the very early stages now, but we see the ability for the technology to evolve to be quite competitive with DSL and cable."

EarthLink will sell the service under its own brand and will charge people $19.95 for the first three months, then $39.95 a month after.

Phase two
Progress Energy representatives said they have tested the technology enough to know it works in a laboratory environment. The EarthLink trials will determine whether BPL works in practice.

"This is our second phase" for BPL, said Matt Oja, the director of emerging technologies at Progress Energy. "The first (question) was does it even work? Now we're marketing it over EarthLink, the retail provider."

The companies expect to make a final decision at the end of the year after completing the market test.

The idea of turning to power companies as broadband purveyors has been floating around for many years, including within the FCC. Power lines are an attractive broadband delivery system because they are already in place and reach more homes than either cable systems or telephone lines.

But technology limitations, policy disputes and expensive failures have consistently left BPL hanging. Power grids were designed for the efficient delivery of electricity and so bring together a vast network or transformers to feed a myriad outputs for household appliances.

To date, BPL has mostly lighted the road to failure. In 1997, Nortel Networks, a telecommunications equipment maker, teamed up with British energy company United Utilities and formed Nor.Web, with the goal of offering broadband over an electricity grid. The venture set up a test in Manchester, England, but soon discovered a snag in its technology: Neighboring lampposts were picking up data signals and rebroadcasting them as radio waves.

The technical problems and the expense of the venture eventually were too much to bear. Nor.Web shut its doors in 1999.

"I've always been skeptical about the extreme version of broadband over power line," said Joe Laszlo, an analyst at Jupiter Research. "I think there are huge problems with the scenario. There are several impediments along the way that make it harder to transmit data over transformers."

Most of the FCC's proposed rules outline a set of technical standards to measure the quality of a BPL broadband signal and to create a public database of available BPL services.

Perhaps the most important regulation addresses signal interference--BPL's biggest stumbling block. Amateur radio operators and some federal safety agencies have raised concerns about the effect of BPL on their communications signals. Without the right technology, it could create more static on lines that people are already using.

"Any time you put a signal on top of a metallic object such as a power line, it's going to radiate and I'm going to hear it," said Jim Heynie, president of the American Radio Relay League, a national amateur radio association. "The industry has not addressed the reception problem."

The FCC itself is trying to temper expectations for BPL. After the technical issues, it faces major regulatory hurdles.

Power companies are not regulated by the FCC, but by local public utilities commissions (PUCs). The FCC just creates rules to open the door for companies to offer broadband through their wires, but doesn't create rules for the wire itself. If power companies decide to push broadband aggressively into the household, a regulatory battle would likely ensue.

"There's very serious debate between the power companies and the local PUCs," the FCC's Thomas said. "We can foresee a situation where regulations could kill the infant business before it's born."

BPL proponents counter that the technology has improved to the point that communities can safely flip the switch. If the FCC's proposed rules take off, these people argue, there's a good possibility that power lines will begin delivering data into homes.

"The only knowledge it takes is to find a wall plug," Thomas said.

Putting BPL to the test
From an industry point of view, the FCC's decision could open up a new front in the escalating war to sell broadband to households across the country. Power lines would join coaxial cable, telephone lines and emerging "last mile" wireless technology as conduits for delivering data to homes.

The testing of reworked BPL service is already under way in a handful of communities, including Cincinnati, Allentown, Pa., and Manassas, Va.

Opening the broadband access market to a third industry with considerable clout could stir up an already bubbling pot. Cable companies currently lead providers of telephony-based DSL services in broadband market share in U.S. households. However, figures from the fourth quarter of 2003 show that cable's growth rate has begun to slow, relative to DSL, according to a study conducted by Leichtman Research Group.

Even so, DSL still has a long way to go to catch up. It accounts for 36 percent of the U.S. broadband market, with the remaining 64 percent served by cable. Much of DSL's recent gains stem from low-price plans designed to compete against a more expensive, though faster, cable service.

"The FCC wants to see a third broadband provider out there, and they want it to be facilities-based," said Brett Kilbourne, the director of regulatory services at the United Power Line Council, an organization of electric companies interested in BPL.

CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.