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Powercos take another look at the internet

By Francis Till

Friday 10th March 2000

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Power Trial
POWER TRIAL: Veba believes the old dream can come true
It's an old dream in internet time, but the idea of carrying internet and telephone connectivity to end users via powerlines has been resurrected by German utilities and telecommunications giant Veba AG.

If Veba's technology bears out in large scale testing, utilities companies around the world may have the option of becoming telcos capable of delivering low cost voice, video and data bandwidth to homes and businesses. That is, if you've got power, you've got everything.

Veba announced it had completed a pilot test for sending data over the lines of its power subsidiary PreussenElektra. It said a test of eight households showed power lines could also cope with high-speed broadband data transfer.

The company has formed a startup subsidiary firm, Oneline, to handle the testing, marketing and placement of the technology, which Veba claims can support bandwidth connections at 2Mbps using existing powerline grids. Oneline, in turn, has partnered with privately held US company Enikia, which has developed an in-building powerline LAN (local area network) system capable of supporting 10Mbps transmissions on a plug and play basis.

The Oneline technology requires the installation of special equipment at primary utility platforms. Connectivity is achieved through the installation of a single tool, the Oneline Box, at the user's meter.

Once the Oneline Box is installed, existing hardware (telephones, computers) can be used to access internet, video and telephone systems by simply plugging in. LANs built around this system use ethernet devices to decipher in-building transmissions, but require no connections other than the electrical grid from which they draw power and are not dependent on the Oneline Box for functionality.

According to Veba, the system can support as many as 30 connections for various functions within a single private home, at a much reduced cost than is currently possible with multiple service providers using specially configured lines.

Last year, UK-based United Utilities had high hopes for a similar venture, the NorWeb power line technology, but abandoned it before bringing it to market. Speculation was rife at that time that the technology had not proved out, but some telecom analysts took the company at its word that low cost bandwidth had made the venture financially impractical.

"They had missed their window of opportunity because the cable TV companies got there before them," Credit Lyonnais telecoms analyst, Tressan Maccarthy said.

United Utilities and Nortel Networks set up NorWeb as a joint venture company in May 1998 to develop digital power line (DPL) technology. DPL would have enabled data to be transferred down existing power cables directly into people's homes using protocols developed for the mobile phone world. Oneline's technology is apparently less restricted and more commercially viable than Norweb's.
Featured this month at the enormous CEBit 2000 trade fair in Hannover, Germany, the Veba-Oneline-Enikia drew substantial interest. Since Veba's announcement, several other German utilities and telecommunications companies have indicated they will bring similar technology to the market this year.

Oneline is setting up tests involving several hundred homes served by PreussenElektra, and is soliciting potential partnerships elsewhere in the world. Details about the company and its plans are available in English and German at its corporate website, www.oneline-ag.de

European firms are not alone in attempts to bring powerline communications into the market this year. In the US, a Dallas, Texas, firm, Media Fusion <http://mediafusioncorp.net/> has established partnerships that will enable it to trial another approach to the problem in cooperation with a number of rural electricity cooperatives.

The company, which received a patent for its closely guarded technology last year, will attempt to "piggyback" broadband on the electromagnetic fields created around wires when electricity passes through them. The company claims this avoids the distortion and signal loss that occurs when information is sent through copper carrying thousands of volts.

Media Fusion's founder, physicist Luke Stewart, claims his technology will deliver broadband at a minimum of 2.5 gigabits a second to individual consumers through the power grid, more than enough to enable features such as high quality video conferencing in every home.

If any of these technologies bear out in large scale tests, the implications are staggering. Nearly 85% of the world has access to electricity, compared with 12-15% with phone service, the internet's prevailing delivery system.

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