More Utilities Mull Data Over Power Lines

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The concept of using electrical power lines to deliverhigh-speed-data services is gaining ground, with 10 overseas utilities now committed tolaunching service as early as this summer and stateside applications slated to get underway in 1999.

Nortel, which claims to hold more than 15 patents in thisarea, said last week that it has formed a joint venture with the first utility to use thetechnology, United Utilities PLC of the U.K., in order to develop and market "DigitalPowerLine" products. United, which has been offering data services over afirst-generation version of the system in northwestern England since last fall, plans togo to full-scale commercial launch this summer, officials said.

The new venture, Nor.Web DPL, now has commitments from nineadditional utilities for deployments -- two power companies in Sweden, two in Germany,Singapore Power and EDON of the Netherlands, as well as four that declined to beidentified -- said Wayne Fothergill, vice president of marketing and business developmentat Nortel. These companies represent a worldwide market reach of 35 million potentialcustomers in 40 countries, he said.

"We hope that there will be more agreements in thenear future," Fothergill said, noting that serious discussions are under way withmore than 40 additional utilities, including some in the United States. The new DPL 1000system delivers data on a contention basis over customer power lines, using 10baseTEthernet connections to the personal computer, with throughput to each user averaging inexcess of 500 kilobits per second. Components include a network interface at the powersubstation, a data unit on the side of the customer premises and a communications modulethat serves as both a modem and as a service manager for home LAN (local-area-network)applications.

The symmetrical two-way system also has a USB (universalserial bus) port, and it is designed to support the addition of software forInternet-protocol telephony later. "We're going to take the product to higherspeeds, beyond 1 megabit per second," Fothergill said, indicating that the currentproduct is meant to be the baseline system for mass deployment as is.

This iteration of the product is well-suited to the utilitygrids of Europe and Asia, where power substations typically serve 200 or more customers.But in North America, where just a handful of customers are connected to any onesubstation, the grid design requires a data interface that can be positioned further backin the power network, which introduces more line noise and high power hazards inconnection with workers having to link the data interface with the line at thetransformer.

But there are situations in the United States and Canada,such as schools and multidwelling units, where more users are connected to any onesubstation, Fothergill noted. "We're looking at developing product forsituations where the cost of locating the interface at the substation transformer would bejustified," he said, suggesting that such products would be available for use here bythe first half of next year.

Moving the interface further back in the network requiresovercoming noise spikes over longer links, Fothergill said. "We've got some workto do, but what we've done so far tells us that we can move this technology into themass market in North America," he added.

As for the high-voltage risks of connecting to power linesfurther back in the grid, United Utilities' communications subsidiary, NorWebCommunications, has already experimented with this approach, said Mark Ballet, managingdirector of NorWeb. "As we were developing this technology, we learned that we couldwork in a higher-voltage environment," he said.

NorWeb is planning to package services with different userneeds in mind when it launches on a wide scale in England this summer, Ballet said. Whileservice will be offered on a flat-rate basis, there will be "different flat rates fordifferent types of service," including education, gaming and retail shopping in theconsumer market, as well as various business services, all with Internet access as astandard feature.

The venture claimed that its technology is cheaper todeploy by at least 20 percent compared with other high-speed-data options, such as dataover hybrid fiber-coaxial cable or telco DSL (digital subscriber line). "Ifthere's trenching to be done, then our system is much cheaper still," Fothergillsaid.

U.S. utility interests have indicated thatthey are examining the Nortel system as one of the more promising approaches to gettinginto the communications business at the residential level.