By JIM SUHR
AP BUSINESS WRITER
ST. LOUIS -- Coming to a home or office near you could be an electric Internet: high-speed Web access via ubiquitous power lines, of all things, making every electrical outlet an always-on Web connection.
If it sounds shocking, consider this: St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. and other utilities already are testing the technology, and many consider it increasingly viable.
This truly plug-and-play technology, if proved safe, has the blessings of federal regulators looking to bolster broadband competition, lower consumer prices and bridge the digital divide in rural areas.
Because virtually every building has a power plug, it "could simply blow the doors off the provision of broadband," Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said last month.
For competition's sake, "absolutely, we would applaud it," says Edmond Thomas, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology.
"We're going to have an absolute stampede to move on this. This is a natural," said Alan Shark, president of the Power Line Communications Association, which includes Internet providers such as Earthlink as well as utility companies. "It'll change the way we do business on the Internet."
Waiting to see
Although current providers of broadband through cable TV lines or phone wires consider the technology intriguing, they stress that talk of it has been around for years, with nothing to show for it.
Broadband providers such as St. Louis-based Charter Communications Inc., the nation's third-largest cable company, think they have the edge because they are known commodities and can bundle high-speed Internet with video and even telephone service in some markets.
If ever deployed, power-line broadband "certainly is competition, but we feel our product would stand up well," said David Andersen, a spokesman for Charter, which has nearly 1.1 million high-speed Internet customers.
What's hurting access
Digital power lines are thought to be able to carry data at roughly the same speeds as cable or DSL lines. And because electricity is more prevalent in homes than cable or even telephone lines, a vast new communications infrastructure could be born overnight -- notably in rural areas, where broadband access has lagged.
There, the scarcity of potential subscribers hasn't justified the high cost of laying cable or building satellite towers. A December 2001 report by the FCC-created National Exchange Carrier Association estimated it would cost about $10.9 billion to wire all of rural America.
Even where broadband is available, many people have trouble justifying spending $40 or $50 a month for it, about twice the cost of popular dial-up services.
Now Ameren, which serves about 1.5 million electric customers in Missouri and Illinois, is studying whether its portfolio could include broadband over its medium-voltage distribution systems -- and, more importantly, if it'd be profitable.
Keith Brightfield, heading the project for Ameren, says it's too early to say when the company could deploy the technology, and the utility makes no claims it can deliver broadband cheaper than current providers. The goal, he said, is to be competitive at Internet access without losing focus on Ameren's bread-and-butter energy business.
Honing the technology
Companies have found that turning power lines into a stable, high-speed system of data transmission is tricky. Network interference and such things as transformers and surge arresters have hindered broadband delivery.
But over the past few years, Shark says, many of those hurdles have been cleared with improved technology. Brightfield says previous efforts to deploy the technology in Europe failed because their electric system differs from that in the United States.
Still, there's no shortage of skepticism.
"I think they're a long ways from proving it; let's leave it there," said Larry Carmichael, a project manager with the Electric Power Research Institute. "The tests to date have been so small as far as looking at the financial and technical viability. It's still at the very early stage of development."
How it works
The technology works like this: Data are carried either by fiber-optic or telephone lines to skip disruptive high-voltage lines, then are injected into the power grid downstream, onto medium-voltage wires.
Because signals can make it only so far before breaking apart, special electronic devices on the line catch packets of data, then reamplify and repackage them before shooting them out again.
Other technologies use more elaborate techniques that detour the signal around transformers.
Either way, the signal makes its way to neighborhoods and customers who could access either it wirelessly, through strategically placed utility poles, or by having it zipped directly into their homes via the regular electric current. Adapters at individual power outlets ferry the data into computers through their usual ports.
The nonprofit Douglas Electric Cooperative in Oregon, with more than 9,000 customers in a service territory the size of Delaware, hopes the electric Internet technology can complement the co-op's high-speed fiber-optic cabling, which is too pricey to extend to rural customers, said Mark Doty, a Douglas superintendent.
The co-op hopes to field-test the technology as early as this summer -- nice timing for member Bart Exparza, who is fed up with his slow dial-up connection at his home deep in Oregon's tree-lined, mountainous countryside.
"Imagine the cartoon of a guy standing on top of his computer, pulling his hair out. That's me," the self-employed electrical contractor frets. "I just roll my eyes and think, 'Golly gee.'"
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