Should this be added to the debate? 65% of homes have electricity; more than the 25% with some form of telecom access.
By TOM McNICHOL
HIGH-speed Internet access usually comes to homes through one of two wires: a telephone line for D.S.L. subscribers, or a coaxial cable for cable modem users. But an emergingtechnology known as broadband over power lines, or B.P.L.,may soon offer a third wire into homes, channelinghigh-speed data through a somewhat improbable conduit: anordinary electrical outlet. B.P.L. is the ultimate in plug-and-play. Users plug a smallpower line modem into any wall outlet and then connect the modem to a computer with a U.S.B. or Ethernet cable, orthrough a wireless Wi-Fi connection. The appeal of B.P.L.is that most of the wiring for the network is in place.Although data must be carefully routed over the electricgrid to prevent interference and signal degradation, there is no need to dig up streets or rewire homes. Two weeks ago the Federal Communications Commission adopted rule changes to encourage the technology in the hope of making broadband more widely available and fostering greater competition among high-speed Internet providers. Internet service over power lines is probably a year or more away from becoming widely available, but the F.C.C.’s ruling is expected to spur investment in B.P.L. by utilities. "Three or four years ago, the technology was not ready for prime time, but now we know it is," said Jay Birnbaum, vice president and general counsel for Current Communications of Germantown, Md., which makes B.P.L. equipment. "And we’ve gotten the cost down, so it’s competitive with other broadband services."
The idea of using electric power lines to send data is not new; companies have been working on it for a decade. The major technical challenge has been how to send bursts of radio frequency energy over power lines without interfering with other radio signals, particularly ham radio and public safety frequencies. The recent F.C.C. ruling establishes frequency bands that B.P.L. signals must avoid to protect aeronautical and Coast Guard communications, and sets up a publicly available database for resolving claims of harmful interference from private radio operators. B.P.L. has been tested in small field trials for several years, involving about 5,000 customers in 18 states. Cinergy, a power company in the Midwest, recently began offering B.P.L. to homes in the Cincinnati area for $30 to $50 a month, depending on connection speed. The company says it hopes to have B.P.L. equipment in more than 50,000 homes by the end of the year. Cinergy is also marketing B.P.L. to smaller municipal and cooperative power companies, particularly in rural areas. "We felt those municipal and cooperative power companies are a terrific market because many of those areas are underserved by D.S.L. and cable," said Bill Grealis, a Cinergy executive vice president.
Adding a data channel to the power lines also has potential benefits for the utilities themselves. By reserving a sliver of the B.P.L. data channel for themselves, power companies can use the network to identify problems and accomplish troubleshooting remotely, rather than sending out a crew. Down the road, utilities could install Internet-enabled meters and switches to offer automated meter reading, power demand management and time-of-day pricing. "Our main interest in B.P.L. is using it to better manage our utility," said Bob Dobkin, a spokesman for Pepco, which is based in Washington. Pepco has a pilot B.P.L. program in about 500 homes in Potomac, Md. "It enables you to identify problems without having to send someone out."
While B.P.L. holds promise, there are unanswered questions about the technology. One F.C.C. commissioner, Michael J. Copps, dissented in part with the commission’s recent action, saying the agency had failed to address issues such as whether electricity customers pay higher monthly bills to subsidize their utility’s foray into broadband. "We’re great on technology, but not so good on working out the rules of the road," Mr. Copps said. "Nearly all of the industrialized nations except the U.S. have national plans for broadband. We don’t have any comprehensive strategy." Mr. Copps and others note that the United States has lately become a broadband laggard; it ranks 13th in the world in broadband penetration, behind countries such as Japan, Korea, Denmark and Iceland. Many believe one main reason is cost. While Americans typically pay $40 to $50 monthly for a D.S.L. or cable modem connection, the Japanese, for example, pay $10 to $15 a month for even faster connections. American broadband consumers, in short, get less bit for the buck. Will B.P.L. bring down the cost of broadband? Mr. Grealis of Cinergy will say only that the cost of a B.P.L. connection will be competitive with D.S.L., cable and wireless. It remains to be seen whether the third wire into the home turns out to be a cheaper alternative or more like the third gas station on a corner, battling the competition at remarkably similar prices.