Plug and Play

Pretty soon, you’ll be able to get broadband Internet over your power lines. Maybe you already can.

Roughly 50 million homes in the United States connect to the Internet through broadband, typically cable or DSL (but to a limited degree satellite as well). Although that sounds like a lot, it’s still a far cry from the nearly 70 million homes with dial-up connections. But this month, a new service is being rolled out that, over time, could dramatically change the economics of broadband Internet and transform what is largely a duopoly between cable and DSL into a competitive market.

The new option: connecting to the Internet through electrical sockets. In this scenario, the home user plugs a specialized modem into the wall socket and is immediately brought online at speeds up to 3 megabits per second, as fast as any broadband service on the market today. Known as “broadband over power lines,” or BPL, the service is currently available to 16,000 homes in Cincinnati.

Marketed under the brand Current Communications, the Cincinnati offering came as something of a surprise. For years, the idea of delivering Internet access through power lines has been stymied by engineering problems that until recently seemed intractable. As far back as March 2000, CNET reported that companies were close to delivering high-speed Internet access through power lines, but nothing came of it. It’s taken four years to turn the theory into commercial reality. Current Communications won’t reveal the specifics of what made its technology perform as promised, but in general terms, what’s historically hindered the deployment of BPL is that the electrical system was designed to transmit electricity and nothing else.

Two major obstacles make transmitting Internet signals through power lines a difficult proposition. The first is that power lines are designed not to interfere with other electromagnetic signals, such as radio and television. Metal wires made of aluminum and copper (the stuff that carries electricity) are also natural antennas. So, utility companies, in order to comply with FCC regulations over what gets broadcast where and how, learned to shield their systems from producing interference with these other licensed signals. A properly built electrical grid transmits electricity at a frequency of 60 hertz. In principle, those same wires could carry another signal, using a different frequency. The problem is that could jam up things like TV and radio transmissions.

Current Communications figured out a way to transmit Internet signals along another frequency—it won’t disclose which, other than to say it’s somewhere between 1.7 megahertz and 30 megahertz—and to comply with FCC regulations that the signal not interfere with other transmissions. And last month, the FCC ruled that BPL systems could go forward, clearing a major regulatory hurdle. The road’s not entirely clear for the technology, however. The FCC has acknowledged that BPL transmission may interfere with amateur ham-radio broadcasts, and that problem will likely need to be solved before BPL can become as common as cable and DSL connections.

The other major technical challenge for BPL systems is that utilities “step down” electrical power from 10,000 volts to 120 volts before electricity enters the home. This is done through a transformer (visible on telephone poles as a kind of big metal bucket). By figuring out a way for Internet signals to bypass the transformer, Current Communications can bring BPL into the home without the risk of bringing along deadly 10,000-volt electricity with it.

Current Communications and Cinergy, the Cincinnati utility that’s providing the electrical grid for the service, tested the system for a year in 100 of the city’s households. In addition to the 16,000 homes currently eligible for the service, they plan to offer it to 55,000 homes by the end of the year. Cinergy says it intends to bring BPL, in a second venture, to the 24 million American homes in rural communities that either have no broadband option or just one (typically DSL).

Current Communications, meanwhile, intends to mimic what it’s done with Cinergy throughout the rest of the (non-rural) country: partner with utilities to bring BPL to as many American homes as possible. It won’t be the only one trying. A company called Amperion has rolled out a BPL service in Ontario and is in trials with EarthLink and Progress Energy to test a similar system in North Carolina. Last October, the city of Manassas, Va., signed an agreement with Powerline Communications to offer every household BPL access by the end of this year. Another entrant into this field is Ambient, which is undergoing field trials in Alabama in conjunction with a subsidiary of the utility Southern Co.

For the moment, though, more households can buy BPL from Current Communications than from any other company. Current offers three price ranges based on speed: One megabit per second costs $29.95 per month, 2 megabits per second costs $34.95, and 3 megabits per second costs $39.95. This is about the same speed and price as DSL and cable, but there’s one important difference. Current Communications delivers a “symmetrical” service, where your upload speed is as fast as your download speed. Cable and DSL in the same price range as Current Communication’s offering are “asymmetrical.”* Your download speed may be fast, but your upload speed is only a fraction of that—typically 80 percent or 90 percent slower. (Satellite upload speeds are even worse.) The ability to deliver synchronous speeds is unique to BPL, and more and more Internet users require a fast upload speed to get the most out of the Net. File-sharers upload files all the time, but there are other examples. Internet telephony requires some amount of uploading anytime you’re on the phone, and video instant-messenger applications upload data, too.

Understandably, utilities will be closely watching the way Cinergy works with Current Communications. If BPL is a hit with Cincinnati consumers, and it causes no problems when it comes to maintenance of the electrical grid, then it’s hard to imagine why any utility would refuse to offer a similar service. BPL may even provide utilities with a benefit beyond additional revenue: The same system that transmits Internet data can be used to remotely monitor household electricity usage, obviating the need to send a technician out to inspect the household meter. The system can also provide detailed feedback on electricity usage in real time, which could potentially detect brownouts before they escalate into blackouts.

If BPL takes off, cable and DSL (along with satellite) will face even more pressure to lower prices while simultaneously increasing speed. That’s the dynamic that made much of the rest of our technological world—from DVD players to personal computers—as cheap and ubiquitous as electricity.

Correction, March 26, 2004: The original version of this article stated that broadband Internet services that have different upload and download speeds were “asynchronous,” rather than the correct term, “asymmetrical.” Also, it stated that all cable and DSL connections are asymmetrical. In fact, symmetrical DSL is available, but not in the price range that home users are accustomed to paying. Return to the corrected sentence.