Whenever an infant technology takes its first steps, you can't help rooting for it.
Particularly so when that toddler represents a potentially serious competitor in a broadband landscape dominated by two delivery technologies, DSL and cable, which have generated some competition and competitive pricing, but still haven't reached vast swaths of America. As well, neither shows signs of lowering access prices any further.
So when the FCC laid some initial ground rules for broadband over power line (BPL) recently, my antennae went up.
The basic BPL idea has been floating around for years: send a broadband signal through a medium voltage line, and then relay it into the home where it is distributed to electrical outlets. Once in the home, a BPL modem picks up the signal for PCs. Another method uses WiFi to carry the signal from electrical lines to the house.
That's right, plug (literally) and play.
Think about it. With more than 18 million miles of distribution power lines in the U.S., we're talking about a dense network with reach far exceeding anything cable or DSL can muster anytime soon.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell envisions the rosy day "when every electrical outlet will have the potential to offer high-speed broadband and a plethora of high-tech applications to all Americans."
But translating BPL's promise into reality has not been easy. Signal interference has been its biggest Achilles heel, and critics warn of the static BPL generates that could hinder reception. Nortel in 1999 shut down a two-year Manchester, UK trial with British power company United Utilities after signal disruptions and expenses proved too onerous.
The FCC guidelines call for new requirements to measure RF emissions from BPL carrier systems and help minimize interference. BPL devices will need to employ mitigation techniques designed to dynamically reduce transmitting power, switch frequencies, or shut down altogether, in the event of signal interference with existing users such as safety agencies or amateur radio operators. Other rules propose setting up a public database for BPL devices for prompt conflict resolution.
Utility companies investing in the technology counter critics by arguing that advancements in recent years have addressed all these concerns. As proof, they cite several trials already up and running, including those underway include Cincinnati, Manassas, Va., and Allentown, Pa.
But the biggest announcement came just a week after the FCC move.
Major ISP EarthLink said it would begin testing its own BPL service using power lines leased from Progress Energy, an electric company serving Florida and the Carolinas.
Already thoroughly tested in a lab setting, Progress Energy's BPL technology will be field-tested in Earthlink's trial in 500 homes in Wake County, NC. Using packet-based broadband signals delivered over Progress Energy power lines, Earthlink will then broadcast the signal into the home using WiFi, where customers pick it up with wireless broadband routers.
Pricing for the service, sold under the EarthLink brand, runs at $19.95 for the first three months, followed by $39.95 per month thereafter. While that doesn't position BPL as a serious threat to cable or DSL, don't forget about the issue of reach.
"(BPL) gives us the ability to offer service where cable and DSL might not be able to," said Kevin Brand, Earthlink's VP of product management. "This is just in the early stages, but eventually this could certainly compete with cable and DSL."
But a further complication looms. The FCC doesn't regulate power companies; local public utilities commissions (PUCs) do. The FCC can allow utilities to offer broadband over its wires, but the PUCs regulate the wires themselves. That sets the stage for possible regulatory brouhaha.
But proponents, led by the utility companies themselves and Powell, say overall broadband penetration and competition will suffer without BPL, and that other countries are moving ahead with their own BPL strategies.
"Despite increasing access to broadband services, significant areas of the country still lack any type of broadband access or competition among broadband service providers," said Powell in a statement following the FCC action.
While BPL represents a golden broadband opportunity, critics warn that the investment landscape needs rules to ensure equitable competition. Specifically, noted Commissioner Michael Copps, how do regulations prevent cross-subsidization between regulated power businesses and unregulated communications companies?
"Is it right to allow electricity rate payers to pay higher bills every month to subsidize an electric company's foray into broadband?" asked Copps, who dissented in part to the new FCC groundwork.
A valid question, and one that merits integration into an overall broadband blueprint the FCC has been wrangling with for some time. Clarifying the investment picture could have significant ramifications, as well, for the other emerging broadband technology, "last mile" wireless.
But we should all welcome a new 800-lb gorilla to compete with DSL and cable. Utility companies aren't all as bad as Enron, the last giant to tout (illusory) broadband service, and they do have the three elements necessary to make BPL work: the technological know-how, the delivery infrastructure, and oodles of money.
It'd be nice to tack the fourth essential, customer service, onto that list, but that remains an unknown.
Can utility companies deliver on the BPL promise? Let's wait and see how the Earthlink experiment and others play out.
You can reach Will at [email protected].