Powering Up Broadband

FCC looking at a novel avenue for broadband connectivity: The electrical outlet.

As conventional notions for promoting high-speed Internet access—tax cuts and regulatory breaks for providers or subsidies for start-ups or users—wallow in legislative logjams or litigation, the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday began looking at a novel avenue for broadband connectivity: The electrical outlet.

Broadband over Power Line, as the technology is known in regulatory circles, has the potential to create a new competitor to digital subscriber line service and cable modem service. Additionally, it could be particularly helpful in delivering Internet access to rural areas, which policy-makers are especially mindful of today.

Tests are underway in about a dozen states, including Maryland, where FCC commissioners recently viewed the technology first-hand at a demonstration set up by Current Technologies Inc. and the Potomac Electric Power Co. In the inquiry opened Wednesday, the commission will evaluate the state of the technology and decide whether existing regulations need to be altered to prevent interference.

Ever-speedier chip sets and new radio frequency modulation techniques hold out the promise that small-scale, experimental communications-over-power lines could be expanded to widespread usage. The FCC has rules in place governing unlicensed systems of this ilk, but new designs suggest that multiple carriers, using a wide range of spectrum, could deliver high-speed data over power lines.

For FCC Chairman Michael Powell, the innovations could provide a boost to the "inter-modal" competition he so favors.

"The development of multiple broadband-capable platforms—be it power lines, Wi-Fi, satellite, laser or licensed wireless—will transform the competitive broadband landscape and reap dramatic windfalls for American consumers and the economy," Powell said upon unveiling the commissions new inquiry.

Strongly supporting the potential for improved competition via power over broadband, Commissioner Michael Copps nonetheless cautioned that it is important to look at the broader implications of delivering communications over utilities, including how to prevent a power companys regulated energy business from subsidizing communications initiatives.

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