For many Mac users, particularly those living in rural areas, high-speed Internet access is a dream, but not a possibility. Many areas don’t have access to cable or DSL lines and the long-promised, Mac-friendly satellite solutions are still just that: promises, not reality. But in the future such underserved users could receive high-speed access via power lines.
According to an Associated Press article, some companies, such as St. Louis-based Ameren Corp., are investigating technologies and scenarios that could make “every electrical outlet an always-on Web connection.” The technology, as long as it’s proven safe, has the approval of federal regulators looking to improve broadband competition, lower consumer prices and bridge the digital divide in rural areas, according. Since practically every building has a power plug, it “could simply blow the doors off the provision of broadband,” Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Michael Powell said in January.
“We’re going to have an absolute stampede to move on this. This is a natural,” said Alan Shark, president of the Power Line Communications Association, which includes Internet providers such as Earthlink as well as utility companies. “It’ll change the way we do business on the Internet.”
However, while power lines could, theoretically, carry data at roughly the same speeds as cable or DSL lines, there are problems facing such technology, AP reports. Network interference and things such as transformers and surge arrestors may prove problematic. Attempts to deploy such technology in Europe bombed (though their electric system differs from that in the U.S.). And using power lines for high-speed Internet access hasn’t been widely tested.
Still, Ameren, which serves about 1.5 million electric customers in Missouri and Illinois, is investigating the possibility to see if it can be done profitably. So is Douglas Electric Cooperative in Oregon.
According to AP, the technology would work with data being carried either by fiber-optic or telephone lines to skip disruptive high-voltage lines. The data would then be “injected” into the power grid downstream, onto medium-voltage wires. Special electronic devices on the line would catch packets of data, then reamplify and repackage them before shooting them out again.
“Either way, the signal makes its way to neighborhoods and customers who could access either it wirelessly, through strategically placed utility poles, or by having it zipped directly into their homes via the regular electric current,” the article explains. “Adaptors at individual power outlets ferry the data into computers through their usual ports.”
Whatever happens, don’t expect to be surfing the Net at high speed through your power outlet anytime soon. The Douglas Electric Cooperative may field test the technology as early as this summer, but it’s still a long way from widespread deployment.