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Broadband Power Surge

Electric utilities are beginning to offer Internet service. But some see static in the plans.

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.

Skeptics question whether broadband over power line technology can overcome its late market arrival; broadband pipes that use cable or phone companies’ digital subscriber lines (DSL) have become the preferred means of Internet delivery for most households moving beyond balky dial-up connections. But on one critical measure of performance, BPL holds its own. BPL’s download speeds range from 500 kilobits per second to 4 megabits per second, according to Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services for the United Power Line Council, an organization that promotes BPL. That’s roughly on par with conventional broadband options. Cable modems typically offer download speeds of 2 megabits per second, while digital subscriber lines (DSL) provide an average of about 860 kilobits per second, according to comScore Networks, a  market research firm in Reston, VA. Solvay’s BPL trial ran in 35 homes over a six-month period and found the user bandwidth to be comparable to that of DSL, according to Montone.

Still unknown is whether expanding into the broadband business makes good sense for utilities, many of which were burned by misguided telecom efforts in the 1990s. Not every power company will see BPL as a core service, says Garrett Johnston, an analyst for Chartwell, a retail-energy research firm in Atlanta. Those utilities that are considering BPL are looking at ways to minimize the risk, such as selling the pole space or partnering with vendors who will promote the service “since utilities aren’t known for marketing in a competitive environment,” says Johnston.

Potential profits aside, how exactly does BPL work? Vendors implement BPL in diverse ways, says Dave Waks, co-author of the Broadband Home Report.  Some employ HomePlug technology, an industry standard for high-speed networking over power lines. Some use proprietary technology. Some use wireless technology to carry signals from the pole to the home. But each approach relies on a common set of elements, Waks says. Data leaves the modem and travels to a corresponding device on the nearest pole-mounted transformer. A power substation relays the signals to a conventional Internet backbone line.

Critics point out that power lines are a harsh environment, already cluttered with interference produced by assorted home accoutrements such as halogen lights and garage-door openers. Ham radio operators protest that BPL will travel over the same frequencies that they’re licensed to use. Following the lead of the Bush administration, which has endorsed the idea of making broadband more universally available, the FCC came down firmly on the side of the technology earlier this year when it approved the use of BPL equipment despite finding that the gear couldn’t meet its guidelines on radio-frequency emissions.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration wasn’t as kind in a little-noticed report issued in April. The NTIA, an agency of the Department of Commerce that advises the White House on all matters telecom, found that BPL-generated data signals posed genuine interference risks to radio communication. The NTIA findings “surprised” the United Power Line Council, according to Kilbourne, who says his organization is “working through some of the findings.”

Pleasing federal officials is important. But so will be a few static-free service roll-outs where BPL providers prove that their power grid is ready for twenty-first century communications.

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