The Future of Electricity
One of the latest innovations in Internet access would connect to the World Wide Web through any electric outlet anywhere.
This new pathway, known as broadband over power lines (BPL), still has unresolved problems. But the potential advantages have a few utilities interested enough to begin experimenting with it.
As Internet-connected computers play an increasingly important part of daily life, those without state-of-the-art access may find themselves on the wrong side of the so-called “digital divide” separating Internet haves and have-nots.
Steve Collier, vice president of emerging technology for the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, says, “Our market studies suggest that rural people are connected to the Internet at about the same rate as urban and suburban people. But it’s just not high-speed, broadband access. Although high speed can be important, the fact is that today more and more computer applications require at least an ‘always on’ setting. Normal dial-up telephone service is not always on and that’s what the rural-urban ‘digital divide’ is all about.”
“Always on” Internet access allows computer users to constantly exchange information (whether it’s e-mail or data or other electronic information), and to use the World Wide Web to its fullest potential. BPL offers both “always on” and high-speed access at speeds up to 100 times faster than dial-up service.
Currently, there are two main options for broadband connections. Each presents problems for rural customers. A direct service line (DSL) sends a digital signal over a regular telephone line. A drawback of DSL is you have to be within two miles of a central office or switch. Cable TV lines can be modified to provide broadband, but such service is seldom available in rural areas; there aren’t enough customers per mile to make extending cable profitable.
Satellite-based or wireless radios offer possible access for remote locations. Others think power lines could provide the solution.
Power lines can carry other kinds of impulses at the same time as electricity. BPL uses low-frequency radio signals to connect to the Internet. Instead of moving through the air, like typical radio signals, BPL signals travel within the wire in a power line.
To use this new pathway, a consumer just plugs a special modem (a small, boxy device about the size of a paperback book) into a wall outlet.
BPL proponents point out that the network of power lines already exists, eliminating expensive new construction. But several tricky problems need to be solved before everyone can start getting the Internet from electric outlets.
Moving the radio signal around electric transformers on the line requires additional equipment, and adds a layer of expense.
Also, the radio frequencies used in BPL are at such low power levels that a signal booster must be installed every mile or more, adding more expense.
But the biggest problem may be radio interference. BPL uses very low radio frequencies subject to a Federal Communications Commission regulation dealing with interference from electronic devices: for example, a garage door remote control that interferes with a cell phone or television. People who file complaints with the FCC can stop use of the device that causes the interference.
Although BPL inserts the radio signal into existing power lines, the radio waves can escape and travel through the air. No one knows if BPL will be able to operate without causing radio interference.
As a few test installations of BPL move forward, most electric utilities are adopting a “wait and see” strategy. As prices for other methods of Internet access develop, rural residents may decide they prefer those more proven technologies.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has started a process to ease regulatory restrictions on offering BPL.
To find out more about BPL, visit this Web site: www.nrtc.org
Next month: The 2003 ice storm