IBM plugs in to powerline broadband trial

IBM is working on a US broadband over power line project, a pilot trial in Houston run by CenterPoint Energy.

One day in the not too distant future, you may be able to tap into the Internet by plugging your computer's modem straight into an electric wall socket. IBM wants to make sure it has a piece of the fledgling BPL (broadband over power line) market: On Monday, it detailed a pilot project it's working on in Houston with CenterPoint Energy to offer several dozen of the utility's customers powerline broadband access.

A handful of BPL trials have been conducted in the US over the past few years, but the CenterPoint project is the first domestic project IBM has been involved with, according to Bernie Hoecker, vice president of IBM's global energy and utility group.

CenterPoint's trial area covers some 220 homes in southwest Houston, 30 of which have signed on so far for the free test project; CenterPoint plans to cap participation at 50 customers. The program began in June and will run through August, at which point CenterPoint will assess its results and decide whether to launch a commercial BPL offering.

What attracted CenterPoint to BPL is the technology's potential to give utility companies greater insight into what's happening on their electrical grids, said Don Cortez, CenterPoint's vice president of BPL technology. Automated meter readings and better maintenance monitoring are among the potential benefits.

"What we're trying to do is bring our grid into the 21st century," Cortez said. "For us to be able to monitor and be able to see what's happening in the grid, rather than just react to when it goes out -- that's huge."

The pilot project has had a few hiccups. After running earlier projects in Europe, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products, another CenterPoint vendor, had to adjust some of its equipment and systems to accommodate differences in the US electrical grid. IBM and CenterPoint also have to keep a close eye on interference -- BPL's potential to disrupt other radio frequency devices has inflamed some groups like amateur radio operators and become a political issue. CenterPoint and IBM both say their interference measurements are now stabilised within acceptable bounds.

If CenterPoint does offer it as a consumer service, Cortez said he expects the price to be comparable to that of cable modem or DSL (digital subscriber line) service.

With customer demand for the fledgling technology still uncertain, though, CenterPoint's plans remain in flux. One possibility is that CenterPoint will continue updating its back-end infrastructure to take advantage of automation advances, but hold off on launching a consumer service, Cortez said.

Meanwhile, IBM plans to continue expanding its BPL technology and expertise. For CenterPoint, IBM Global Services assisted in the system's design and implementation and is providing project management and equipment monitoring services. IBM's hardware group provided much of the physical infrastructure for CenterPoint's BPL technology center, including servers, PCs and wireless products.

IBM has previously worked on BPL tests in Italy, and it's in the planning stages of several projects with other US customers, according to Hoecker.

"We see it as an emerging technology," he said. "It's fledgling right now, but we're pretty exited about it."

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