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Something New Under The Sun

Local phone companies want you to surf the web via high speed DSL. Cable TV companies want you to use a cable modem to surf even faster. Now Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Cinergy and other electrical utilities along with AT&T are working on an even faster technology: High speed Internet and phone service via electrical lines.

Called Broadband over Powerline or BPL, the technology uses the power grid to deliver data along with electricity. Just as phone and cable wires have excess capacity not needed to carry voice or TV, power lines have enough headroom to deliver data as well.

In Cincinnati, electrical utility Cinergy Corp already offers high speed service that's competitive with DSL and cable, starting at $29 a month. That company's customers are able to connect their personal computers to an adapter plugged into any wall socket to enjoy broadband Internet service.

AT&T and PG&E on Wednesday demonstrated somewhat slightly different implementation of BPL technology which, the companies say, can not only provide up to 54 megabits of data to the home (20 times the speed of most cable or DSL services) but also greatly improve the sound quality of phone calls.

The demonstration took place at AT&T Labs in Menlo Park, California. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell and California Public Utilities Commissioner Susan P. Kennedy were in attendance.

The technology, according to Irwin Gerszberg, director of Local Network Technology for AT&T, would use a combination of wired and wireless transmission to get data to the home.

The concept uses what AT&T called BPL Node Technology. The nodes or distribution points would be connected to the Internet via high-speed fiber optic cables. That part would require stringing additional wires but each node would serve up to 300 homes, making it a lot cheaper than bringing fiber directly to each home.

From the node, the data would travel over regular electrical lines to poles in each neighborhood. At that point, it would be handed off to a wireless transmitter, using 802.11 (WiFi) - the technology which already provides wireless Internet connections for many homes, businesses and public places. The WiFi transmitters would then deliver the data directly into the homes or nearby mobile devices.

Today's technology would symmetrically deliver between 1 and 10 megabits of data, which means that you would have the same speed whether downloading data from a remote server to your home or uploading data from your home to a remote device. The downlink portion is roughly the same speed as today's DSL, cable and wireless networks, but AT&T says that it will later be able to scale this up to 60 megabits - fast enough to deliver high quality real time video along with voice and other data.

Broadband over Powerline isn't necessarily better technology than what cable and local phone companies will be able to deliver as they enhance their current offerings and it's actually slower than what can now be accomplished by bringing fiber directly into the home. But laying new fiber wires is incredibly expensive, costing well over $1,500 per home for new wiring according to AT&T estimates.

Like DSL and cable, this technology takes advantage of wires that are already in place. It also reaches homes that are not served by DSL or cable systems. For DSL to work, a customer has to be within about 18,000 feet of the phone company's central office - which leaves out many potential customers. And there are many parts of the country that do not have access to TV cables. But with only a few exceptions, electrification is almost universal in America.

Perhaps the biggest advantage, however, is increased competition, according to FCC chairman Michael Powell.

"Magic things happen when you have three competitors: three forms of technology, better choice, better innovation and better prices for consumers," says Powell, adding that for nearly a century, "the country was stuck with one monopoly."

Powell wants "the next generation to be from multiple providers with multiple pipes with innovation occurring and consumers having a whole lot of choices." He expects the players to ultimately include phone companies, cable companies, power companies and wireless providers.

PG&E, which will deliver data over its lines, not only expects to earn revenue from the project but to improve its ability to monitor its power lines. PG&E CEO Gordon Smith calls the technology a "core investment in our infrastructure" which could help the electric utilities become more reliable, with more information on power problems, customer usage, and economic trends.

Because the technology requires two-way communication on the electrical poles, it can be used to monitor and immediately pinpoint the source and location of a power outage, allowing the utility company to dispatch a repair truck to the precise location. It can also be used to provide feedback to customers as to how they are using electricity and make it easier to offer economic incentives for consumers to use their major appliances during off-peak periods.

The wireless portion of AT&T & PG&E's strategy starts off with a derivation of today's relatively short range WiFi systems. Yet another technology, called WiMax, could provide yet another alternative. That technology, which is supported by Intel and other companies, has a theoretical range of up to 30 miles with speeds up to 70 megabits per second.

WiMax is still in its infancy, with many of the standards and specifications yet to be worked out, but like WiFi before it, it has the potential to explode once the specifications are in place and the chipsets start to arrive.

What does all this mean to consumers? It means that broadband is not only here to stay, but likely to become universal, affordable and much faster. The only questions are when will the technology reach a home near you and who will provide it? AT&T along with PG&E and other power companies want your business, but so do a lot of other players.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid

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