Telecom Power: Electrifying Data

7 Jun 1999

Prospects for using the nation's electricity network as a third telecom line into homes and businesses could get brighter in the coming months, depending on how well technology trials go for one major equipment maker.

International Powerline Communications Forum Editor's Note

The site where this information was originally published no longer carries this article.

By Denise Culver, Inter@ctive Week
Special To Inter@ctive Week
June 7, 1999 10:18 AM ET

If all goes well with its test trials, Nortel Networks says it will provide domestic electric companies with technology to carry telecommunications and high-speed data over the existing electric grid within a year.

Nortel has used its technology, called Digital PowerLine (DPL), successfully in European and Asian markets. Currently, the company has agreements with 10 non-U.S. utilities that serve 35 million homes, says Dan Middleton, director of carrier packet solutions at Nortel's power line networks division.

DPL works by sending a radio frequency data signal - at speeds of up to 1 megabit per second - across the power lines of the existing power grid. Once the data signal reaches a customer's home, the signal is extracted via a customer premises coupling unit that serves as the junction device for both communications and power.

From the coupling unit, the data signal passes through a communications module - the equivalent of a conventional modem - that then connects to a computer via a standard Ethernet or universal interface.

Getting by the scramblers

The big challenge for Nortel is coming up with a way to get around power grid transformers, which scramble data signals.

The problem hasn't been a huge issue internationally, because the density of transformers to households is approximately 1 to 100. But in the U.S., the ratio of transformers to households is 1 to 10, which makes it impractical to deploy Nortel's DPL without a way to work around the transformer problem.

Although Middleton won't elaborate on the details, he says Nortel has developed a way to bypass transformers. Once the company demonstrates that its system works, Middleton expects DPL technology to be well-received by U.S. utilities that are looking to enter the telecommunications marketplace.

“There is a huge interest from utility companies here that want to provide Internet, intranet and virtual private network services,” Middleton says. “Our experience on the international front has been that the data-starved consumer wants these services, and he doesn't care how he gets them or who provides them - as long as they get there.”

Rival approach

Nortel isn't the only supplier looking to turn the nation's power grid into a high-speed telecom access network. Media Fusion, a Dallas-based start-up, last month announced that it has developed technology for carrying data over the electric grid.

The company says its system uses existing components, a special polymer and some complex algorithms to enable the transmission of data on the magnetic field created when electrons travel down electrical wires. Media Fusion says the approach isn't affected by transformers, because data is carried on a different wave than that which Nortel uses.

If Media Fusion's technology is proven effective - something company officials say they will do by summer's end - it could throw a major wrench in Nortel's plans, says Carol Heiberger, president of Energy & Telecom, which tracks the utility industry.

“In the end,” Heiberger says, “it's going to be who can get the data to the home the fastest and cheapest. If Media Fusion can accomplish what it says it can, electric companies are going to be drooling to get their hands on the technology.”

Middleton says he is unfamiliar with Media Fusion and its technology.

“We've been perfecting this technology for several years, and we have top engineers who are looking at every option out there,” Middleton says. “We chose this strategy because it provided the best alternatives for using the electric grid for data transmission.”

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Filed: Jun 1999, News, Co: Media Fusion, Tech: None

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