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 [email protected]
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.

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