Electric Utilities Try to Plug in to High-speed Internet

April 29, 2003
High-speed Internet could be coming soon to an electric outlet near you. Several electric utilities nationwide -- including St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., which serves the Peoria area -- are testing the concept of offering high-speed data connections over the same electric wires that power your dishwasher, toaster and refrigerator.

If successful, the new technology could bolster broadband competition, possibly lower consumer prices, and offer customers another high speed Internet alternative to phone lines, cable, and satellites. It also could bring broadband to millions of rural consumers who don't have access to cable or digital subscriber lines (DSL).

"It's a wonderful thing for consumers. It will bring broadband to people who are not currently served, and there are possibilities of greater competition and lower pricing, which would be very attractive from a consumer standpoint," said Alan Shark, president of The Power Line Communications Association, a trade association representing the interests of electric utilities interested in offering power line communications (PLC).

Ameren is testing in a market that includes about 50 residential customers in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

"We are testing the feasibility of the technology at this point. We haven't made a decision on whether to offer the service on a commercial basis," said Ameren spokeswoman Erica Abbett.

Since Ameren is still investigating the idea it's too early to discuss such topics as pricing and download speeds, she said.

"We're not really at that point yet. We haven't identified all of the advantages and disadvantages," Abbett said.

Ameren owns AmerenCILCO in Peoria and AmerenCIPS in Springfield. Ameren companies serve 1.7 million electric customers and 500,000 natural gas customers in a 49,000-square-mile area of Illinois and Missouri.

AmerenCILCO operates energy distribution systems that serve about 203,000 electric and 208,000 natural gas customers in 150 communities in a 4,500-square-mile area in central and east central Illinois.

The Ameren test works like this: The power lines that deliver electricity to homes are equipped with a device that enables data communications to travel over those lines. A consumer could connect to the Internet by plugging a personal computer into a power line communications modem, which plugs into the electrical socket. Power line modems, which already are available in stores for less than $70, are used in home computer networks that use electric wiring.

Supporters of the new power line technology say it is increasingly viable since nearly every building has a plug in it, plus it would make every electrical outlet an always-on Web connection and no special wiring is needed.

"It will change the way we do business on the Internet," said Shark of PLCA.

Power line broadband already has the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission, which is seeking to increase broadband competition.

The technology behind power line broadband has been around for years, but implementing it is a different story, Shark said.

Many companies have struggled for years to make the technology work. But recently, he said, big strides have been made and companies have been able to overcome technical hurdles such as power line interference and getting around electrical transformers that block broadband signals.

"Once you have one or two utilities that successfully employ it commercially, then there will be a stampede," Shark said.

He predicts the technology could be available in some areas of the nation, mainly the East Coast, in 18 to 24 months, though the lag time could be longer in some areas until more utilities get on board.

And since electricity is more prevalent in homes than cable or even phone lines, the birth of vast new technology could become a reckoning force in the broadband field, especially in rural areas where broadband access has lagged, Shark said.

"A large portion of America doesn't have broadband at all," he said.

Broadband is about 10 to 20 times faster than dial-up services and can deliver a wider range of services, including high-quality video. But whether the new power line broadband will have comparable or faster data speeds or if it will be cheaper for consumers than cable or DSL remains to be seen. Some utilities have said they may be able to offer it at a cost of $30 to $40 a month for residential users compared to the $40 to $50 average monthly charge for broadband.

Shark said the new power line broadband competes favorably with other technology. "What we have seen so far is we are as competitive as everyone else, we're not slower and some say we are faster," he said.

He said it could be cheaper for consumers because the infrastructure already exists. "You have lower capital expenditures because the network, the power lines, are already there to begin with; that is a huge savings," Shark said, adding the utilities, through their own operation of the technology or via a franchise, can control costs directly.

Peoria resident Brad Niemcek said he's happy to see another competitor in the broadband field, even though he's satisfied with his DSL service.

"Getting the electrical companies involved would be wonderful, just to have that third competition," said Niemcek, a consultant for The Web Presence Group, a Peoria web development company.

Existing providers of broadband through cable TV lines or phone wires say consumers ultimately will decide with their pocketbooks whether the new technology will succeed.

"Competition is what everything's built on, and we feel we have a good product, we deliver it well, and the customer ultimately will decide who is best," said Esther Viles, regional manager of government relations for Media.com, a New York-based, multi-system operator that offers broadband to rural areas in 23 states, including throughout Illinois.

"Consumers will shop and they will decide which one they like, but service is going to be the key," said John Niebur, Insight Communication's district vice president for the Peoria area. "And our focus is on customer service and making sure we offer reliable service."

Insight Communications provides Internet broadband to about 10,000 customers in Peoria, and also serves other communities such as Galesburg, Knoxville, Bloomington/ Normal, Pekin and Morton.

If the new technology is deployed, Niebur acknowledged it could potentially become a "formidable competitor" because nearly every household has electricity, but not everyone has cable.

"But at the end of the day, what it will come down to is who could provide the best service," he said. "It will come down to pricing and delivery speed."
By Anita Szoke, Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. -- April 22  To see more of the Journal Star, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.PJStar.com

(c) 2003, Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. AEE,

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