RealTime IT News

Broadband Alternative Gains Clout

There's a new technology making an increasing buzz in the tech sector these days, one that has little hope of becoming a mainstream replacement to digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable, but one that has the potential for future growth.

Meet power line connectivity (PLC), a broadband alternative that brings the Internet through your power lines and outlet into your computer at speeds that top 1.5Mbps.

Delivering Internet access via A/C power is remarkably similar to what the phone companies use to deliver DSL: communications are delivered to a neighborhood substation, which then routes them to the correct access point (home). But instead of a DSL modem at the PC, a modem plugged into an outlet would separate the data from the power.

The technology behind PLC has been around for years, but the implementation has been a different story.

In Europe, there's been more interest by vendors than their counterparts in America, mainly due to the fact that European power lines carry a better voltage standard and don't have the number of transformers issues that U.S. telephone lines experience.

Another is the stability of the medium itself. Deregulation of the U.S. power industry this year, while successful with most states, caused California's massive power shortages, as energy suppliers jacked up prices or sold energy California normally received to other states. The result was rolling outages and "brown-outs" throughout 2001 for many parts of California.

Many residential customers have already had their fair share of service outages, (read Excite@Home and NorthPoint Communications, major cable and DSL providers, respectively), and its certain a similar breakdown in fledgling PLC would quickly end mainstream hopes.

But its exactly that reason the shutdowns that many consumers around the nation that might give the technology a shot.

According to Yankee Group analyst Seth Libby, the next year will prove crucial to the technology's development.

"PLC is closer to being a commercial reality in the United States than ever before," Libby said.

Beta tests in the next 12 months will determine the success or failure of the standard, he said, as vendors work out technical hurdles like coming up with a PLC standard and making partnerships with distributors and power companies.

"PLC is not yet ready for wide-scale deployment in the United States, and won't be until a commercially viable medium-voltage PLC solution is available," he said.

As such, PLC development has been very slow. European PLC development has been more advanced than in the U.S., but that doesn't mean that American companies aren't trying. Several blue chip companies are making strides in PLC development in the U.S.

In February, 2000, Intel Corp. paid $150 million for DSL modem processor maker Ambient Technologies for $150 million. While the company specialized in DSL, Ambient also developed "smart appliance" chips to virtually connect the home through power lines. While not as efficient as Bluetooth, PLC was seen as a viable option.

Ambient has been working with utility company Consolidated Edison to begin beta testing a PLC product sometime in 2002. Another company, PowerTrust of Reston, VA, has been conducting field tests with power companies in the Southeast with successful reports of modem speeds higher than 1.5Mbps.

Motorola Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., are also experimenting with PLC product lines.