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IBM Aims to Electrify Rural Broadband Access

IBM today announced it's leading a $9.6 million broadband project targeting rural communities across seven states. The Broadband over Power Line (BPL) networks deployment includes a half dozen electric cooperatives.

Big Blue (NYSE: IBM) said it's the first time a solutions integrator has stepped into the BPL market and that the project is the first BPL technology effort for the 900-member electric cooperative market. The goal is to bring advanced Internet connectivity to millions of Americans who currently can't access wireless or WiFi networking options.

The news comes as broadband fever grabs businesses, consumers, wireless carriers, smartphone makers and pretty much any computing player looking to provide relatively cheap, fast data access and advanced mobile communications.

A recent State of the Internet report from content delivery player Akamai said U.S. broadband connections are increasing steadily; there was 29 percent growth in the second quarter of 2008 over Q1.

Research firm In-Stat predicts that 670,000 new U.S.-based subscribers are signing up each month for broadband technologies such as digital subscriber line (DSL) service, cable modem services as well as wireless and satellite broadband services.

BPL technology, which has been around for over a decade, has consistently stalled for several reasons. Federal regulatory approval arrived just a few years ago, as did industry standards. Very early projects were challenged with interference issues as electric lines in rural communities are shared with amateur radio operators for emergency services.

Broadband over Power Lines uses power line networks to provide access to the Internet. Users need a BPL modem for access. Electrical lines, well dispersed throughout the U.S., provide a ready infrastructure for broadband services.

Jumping on the broadband bandwagon

While electric companies embraced BPL from the get go as an internal technology for monitoring substations and collecting grid data, most failed to jump on a broadband consumer bandwagon as they couldn't map out viable business models, according to experts.

The delay in getting to market let other players, notably wireless carriers and cable companies, sprint ahead to grab 40 million US broadband customers. In comparison, BPL has about 135,000 users as of this year, according to research firm In-Stat. That's just 5,000 more than in 2007.

IBM, the International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) and the United Telecom Council (UTC) however, say they aren't deterred by the slow start. The three players believe that the rural market and the electric cooperative space are ripe with promise.

"These [rural] areas desperately need broadband technology and today's technology is cheaper and more viable," Raymond Blair, director of advanced networks, IBM, told InternetNews.com . "BPL is one of those technologies that makes a lot of sense when used in the right place."

As project leader IBM will handle project management and crew training while its partner, IBEC, serves as the ISP, providing technology and equipment to 62,000 potential subscribers in the first stage of the project. There are currently 900 electric cooperatives nationwide, representing 12 percent of the U.S. population and 45 percent of the total electric national grid.

The UTC, which represents investor-owned, municipal and utility cooperative worldwide, said IBM's involvement offers tremendous potential for BPL market traction.

"For a tech story this is actually really all about people," Bill Moloney, UTEC president and CEO, told InternetNews.com.

"When a company like IBM steps in, it provides the scale and scope to deliver broadband to millions," said Moloney, who estimates BPL could bring broadband to 50 million Americans who currently have no access.