Thursday, February 19, 2009

I.B.M. Delivers Rural Broadband Over Power Lines

Original Article - New York Times

With $7 billion of government money on the line, it’s no surprise that all kinds of companies are claiming they can wire the most isolated ranchers and cave dwellers with broadband Internet service.

On Thursday, I.B.M. piped up to say that it is working with rural electric cooperatives to offer high-speed Internet service, delivered over electric power lines.

Technology to send broadband over power lines has been around for several years, but it typically hasn’t been able to offer enough capacity at a low enough price to beat service from cable and phone companies.

But with government subsidies, the approach is starting to be deployed in areas that don’t have access to other forms of broadband.

IBM Global Services is actually a contractor working for International Broadband Electric Communications, a Huntsville, Ala., company that has developed both the technology and service model to make the system work, at least in rural areas without other broadband offerings. The companies began deploying Internet service last year with one rural cooperative in Alabama , and this week announced an expansion to include five more cooperatives in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia.

There appears to be pent-up demand in these areas. One Michigan cooperative signed up 5,000 customers in the first two weeks, said Raymond Blair, the director of advanced networks for I.B.M.

These deployments have been subsidized by low-interest loans from the Rural Development Program of the Department of Agriculture, which is going to get a big chunk of new money for loans and grants from the stimulus bill that was just signed.

To deploy a broadband system, a power company needs to run an Internet connection over fiber to each electrical substation. Then it can simply install one amplifier per mile of power line. Another device sends the signal the final stretch to subscribers’ homes. To use the service, consumers can plug the modem into any outlet. With the amplifiers, the signal can be sent 25 miles from a substation, far longer than DSL service over phone wires.

Mr. Blair said this technology has been cost-effective in areas that have five to fifteen people living near each mile of line. The government grants might even encourage power companies to install it in even more sparsely populated areas.

Wireless service, of course, is another option for rural areas, but Mr. Blair said that delivery over power lines could be especially good for hilly terrain that blocks wireless signals.

The service, as offered by I.B.E.C. is certainly not something you’d want if you can get broadband another way. The company charges $29.95 a month for service at 256 kilobits per second and $49.95 for 1 megabit per second. Those are far slower speeds that cable and phone companies offer at those prices.

“The Internet at 256 kilobits may not sound like a lot, but that’s literally 10 times what people are getting today,” Mr. Blair said. “If you remember what it was like to be on dial-up, it’s totally inadequate for the nature of the Internet in this world.”

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