The next innovation in broadband Internet access has just turned an interesting corner. Some telecommunications industry insiders have been pointing to 2005 as the year when broadband over power line (BPL) technology finally makes that critical surge as a viable “third pipe” alternative to cable and DSL. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether the technology can hold its own compared to the familiar forces of cable and DSL. But with federal-level support and some advances in hardware systems, BPL has a fighting chance.
In at least 20 test sites around the country, utility companies are carefully monitoring the feasibility of BPL. Although questions remain, Joseph E. Fergus, CEO and founder of the information technology services company COMTek, a BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 firm, is leading the charge to deliver some answers.
“Before there was cable, before there was DSL, there was electricity,” explains Fergus. “We’re now using the means that the electrical infrastructure offers to convey broadband all the way to the home.” Last July, COMTek, based in Chantilly, Virginia, partnered with the city of Manassas to launch the nation’s first commercial deployment of BPL. Using the city’s power lines as a platform to deliver high-speed Internet access, Fergus saw BPL not only as an emerging technology but as a growth opportunity for his award-winning company.
The BPL deployment in Manassas passes through 8,000 homes. Roughly 12% of those homes have signed up for the service. As the city’s Internet service provider, COMTek offers the BPL modem, which plugs into virtually any electrical outlet, free of charge. Subscription prices start at $28.95 for residential customers and $39.95 for businesses.
“When we began deploying our service, we wanted to embrace a strategy that would give us some independence from the traditional Bell operating companies,” says Fergus. “What that meant was that we had to include technologies that would give us an opportunity to access our customers regardless of where they are.”
In the broadband marketplace, that independence signals a vital edge for COMTek: BPL allows the company to reach out to areas where it’s cost prohibitive for cable and DSL competitors to do the same. The launch also delivers some advantages for the utility company. As power lines adapt to transmit broadband, they also inherit the benefits that BPL can offer to the power station infrastructure, such as remote meter readings and the ability to turn off transformers. “We’re talking about a myriad of services that help the power companies operate more efficiently,” says Fergus. That’s a crucial feature given that utility companies are typically wary of new technology. So is 2005 actually the year for BPL?
“That’s the question,” says Barry E. Goodstadt, vice president and senior consultant with the Rochester, New York-based market research company Harris Interactive. “BPL can certainly provide an avenue for a number of folks who haven’t adopted broadband yet because it’s at a slightly lower cost than say DSL and it can be deployed in more rural areas … the wires are already in the house or in the ground.”