Broadband power-line Web service comes to Canada

PUC Telecom in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. says it’s the first Canadian service provider to use electrical power lines for high-speed Internet connectivity.

An offshoot of the municipal public utilities holdings company PUC Inc., PUC Telecom is building a broadband power-line (BPL) network that should allow the firm to extend its data offerings, and provide local businesses with an alternative to DSL or high-speed cable.

According to Martin Wyant, PUC Telecom’s general manager, the service provider already offered dedicated, commercial-grade Internet connections via its fibre-optic network. But the firm wanted to offer an Internet service outside of the fibre-optic network’s reach — a service suitable for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

It would have been too expensive to extend the optical infrastructure into the suburbs. And although PUC Telecom considered reselling other telcos’ DSL offerings, that option had a profit problem: “There’s not a lot [of profit],” Wyant said.

So the company opted for a BPL platform from Amperion Inc. in Andover, Mass. Amperion’s solution would support high-speed Internet service and help the carrier extend its offerings beyond plain old wireline data transport.

Amperion’s platform marries wireless and BPL. The wired part of the network, the power line, terminates not inside businesses, but at hydro poles along Sault Ste. Marie’s streets. Atop the poles you’ll find boxes that transmit Wi-Fi (802.11b) signals to customers’ premises. The users need only have PUC Telecom subscriptions and Wi-Fi cards in their PCs to connect to the Web.

The Wi-Fi part of the network means PUC Telecom can operate a city-wide hotspot, so people roving Sault Ste. Marie’s streets with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or PDAs can get online.

And PUC Telecom’s field workers can use the wireless network to connect with headquarters and garner work-site data when they’re out on the job.

Wyant said his company is developing applications for just that sort of thing, and PUC Telecom might license the programs to other utility firms.

The Wi-Fi component also helps PUC Telecom sidestep certain regulatory concerns over BPL technology. In the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is investigating complaints that BPL interferes with licensed wireless devices like ham radios. But Jeff Tolnar from Amperion said the Wi-Fi last-mile connection means data-live wires are safely separated from customers’ premises, where people might use ham radios and other interference-loathing devices.

“The other thing is the system we have on the wires is frequency-agile,” Tolnar said. “We can move the frequencies that we transmit over the power lines away from ham radio frequencies.”

The architecture addresses safety too, he said. “Something that carries…35,000 volts, you really don’t want a line running from that directly into a premise.”

Wyant said PUC Telecom invited Industry Canada, the federal government department in charge of wireless licensing, to test Sault Ste. Marie for interference.

“I wouldn’t say there’s ‘concern’ in that we think there’s going to be a problem, but it’s an issue we want to confront,” he said.

Wyant said PUC Telecom would trial the BPL network until mid-spring. “We haven’t settled on a price, but it has to compete with existing small business offerings that are out there,” he added.

DSL service generally ranges from $30 to $60 per month, depending on the market and the data rate. PUC Telecom’s product should provide throughput rates between 3Mbps and 5Mbps, Wyant said.

— With files from IDG News Service

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