Utilities Look to New Broadband over Power Lines

Utility companies are excited about the marketing opportunity for a new technology that allows high-speed Web access through existing electrical outlets. The Federal Communications Commission has given its approval.

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There's a new broadband technology spreading across the United States called broadband over power lines or BPL. It uses the utility's electric power lines to deliver a high-speed Internet access into a home or business. And because your house is already wired for electricity, it turns every outlet into a connection point. NPR's Wade Goodwyn traveled to one small town that's betting on that technology's future.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

Halfway between Houston, San Antonio and Austin is the town of Flatonia. Population: 1,400.

(Soundbite of train)

GOODWYN: Flatonia happens to be where the Union Pacific's north-south line crosses the railroad company's east-west line. A lot of trains come through Flatonia, and to its amazement, train buffs have started showing up to watch. So the town built a covered observation platform.

(Soundbite of train)

GOODWYN: Flatonia's got many things. There's a huge kitty litter factory, an even bigger Cal-Maine egg processing plant, but one thing it could not seem to get no matter how it begged was broadband service.

Mayor LORI BERGER (Flatonia, Texas): We want to offer our citizens--just because we're rural doesn't mean they're not entitled to the same thing everybody has in Austin, Houston and San Antonio.

GOODWYN: Lori Berger grew up in Flatonia and now she's the mayor. Berger says that having high-speed Internet is critical to the town's future and she's betting $200,000 of taxpayer money on broadband over power lines technology. And a big bonus comes with her purchase because, in addition to high-speed Internet access, BPL will give a municipal-owned utility powerful new capabilities.

Mayor BERGER: We would be able to read meters, water meters and electric meters, through the system, and we'd know if there was a power outage exactly where it was.

GOODWYN: Broadband over power lines technology turns the utility's electric lines into a data network. So say if a transformer explodes during a lightning storm, instead of sending trucks out into the dark in a search mission, BPL software can pinpoint the blown transformer. The utility operator can see on a computer screen precisely how many customers lost service and who exactly those customers are. Berger says this will be a major improvement over the way Flatonia used to operate.

Mayor BERGER: We had a power outage about three months ago in the evening, and I realized it was going on. So I came up to City Hall to answer phones. So we sat here for two hours and answered phones, trying to figure out exactly what line was down.

GOODWYN: Although city officials are excited about remote meter reading and fantasizing how fast their reaction is going to be the next time a big thunderstorm knocks out the electricity, it's the new broadband connections that Flatonians are happy about.

Ms. CARLENE CARLOCK(ph): It's new for me.

GOODWYN: Carlene Carlock doesn't look like a great-grandmother as she sprightly moves around her antique shop, but her granddaughters have been getting busy, sending her pictures of her new great-grandchildren from locations far and wide.

Ms. CARLOCK: They're in Germany, in California, and my granddaughters, they e-mail me pictures of them. She was just born, my last. And within a day, I had pictures of her. So, you know, it's pretty important when your great-grandchildren are that far away, and I get pictures every week.

GOODWYN: Until two weeks ago, Carlock had to endure up to two hours of frustration on her dial-up connection every time she'd download a picture file.

Ms. CARLOCK: It was horrible. That doesn't happen anymore. I mean, it just comes through real fast. Just blip, blip and it's there.

GOODWYN: BPL is pretty fast, four megabytes, comparable to cable broadband. But the new generation of BPL equipment, just now coming out, will boost speeds up to 90 megabytes, capable of video on demand. Mike Bates is the co-founder of Broadband Horizons, which is setting up the system in Flatonia. Bates says that BPL is perfect for small-town America, especially towns which own their own utilities.

Mr. MIKE BATES (Co-Founder, Broadband Horizons): With broadband over power line, the real benefit is that they then can control their own destiny. They can use what they already own, this utility asset, and transform the asset and provide broadband in every home via their electric outlets. So it's--that's what the promise is for these communities.

GOODWYN: Bates sells the town the equipment, maintains it and then splits the $25 monthly service fee each customer pays. It's all pretty new. Word is just getting out in Texas, but there's one groups that wary, and that's ham radio operators. Ed Hare is the laboratory manager at the American Radio Relay League, the national organization of ham radio operators.

Mr. ED HARE (Laboratory Manager, American Radio Relay League): BPL that operates at the FCC limits can and does cause strong local interference problems on any spectrum it's using.

GOODWYN: But BPL operators say they've come up with a technological fix. It's called notching, and it notches out of the BPL signal that part of the spectrum that amateur radio operators use. Mike Bates says he's currently working with a dozen Texas small towns and one rural electric cooperative in Kentucky, setting up their new BPL systems. Like Wal-Mart before him, Bates is betting small-town America is hungry for what he's selling. Only this time it's broadband over power lines at everyday low prices.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News.

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