Sometimes it’s all a matter of perception. No one thinks twice about operating a PC by plugging it into an electrical socket. Trusting those same electric transmission cables for online data transmission thoughwell, that’s another matter. But a bevy of utilities and technology companies think that power lines, the first of which were running in the late nineteenth century, can reliably ferry digital information atop the flowing currents that bring light and air conditioning to our homes and offices.
Their bullish view of using the nation’s power grid as a conveyor of Internet connectivity is winning converts. Earlier this year, broadband over power lines, or BPL, received an official thumbs-up from the Federal Communications Commission when the agency proposed guidelines for the new technology. Just last month, BPL found itself demonstrated before a House of Representatives subcommittee. And on July 7, the village of Solvay, NYpopulation 6,845will decide whether BPL is ready to make the leap to reality. That’s when village trustees are scheduled to vote on a plan that would allow the town’s municipal electric utility to begin offering high-speed Internet connectivity for the fire-sale price of $25 a month.
One-hundred and fifty residents of the Syracuse-area village have already indicated they want to sign up for the service, says superintendent John Montone of the Solvay Electric Department. He expects the proposal to win approval. As for the enticingly low monthly fee, Montone predicts it could drop further. The enhanced connectivity will offer a finer level of detail on the utility’s residential power system, which would allow it to pinpoint affected areas more quickly during a power failure and thereby reduce downtime and repair costs. “If we have an outage,” says Montone, “this will help us monitor it and enable our crews to provide a much quicker response.”
Proponents of BPL contend that the universal availability of power lines makes them ideal broadband conduits, especially for rural areas. The American Public Power Association, which represents local publicly owned electric utilities, says 75 percent of its members serve communities with populations of less than 10,000the kinds of communities unlikely to be served by DSL or cable. But the idea is attracting attention even in more urban regions. Cinergy expects to extend BPL service to 55,000 customers in the Cincinnati area by the end of this year. Montone says that one reason he was interested in pursuing BPL was to provide Solvay residents a more affordable alternative to Time Warner’s $44-a-month cable-modem service that is currently offered there.
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