EU bids to clear way for Net over powerlines

The European Union’s communications regulator, the European Commission, launched an initiative on Friday to boost the growth of broadband Internet access over power transmission lines.

It issued a recommendation to national telecommunications and utilities regulators to remove “any unjustified regulatory obstacles,” especially from utilities companies, in order to open up the market for broadband powerline communications.

The Commission said that the move would allow new suppliers of broadband access to compete with owners of the telephone local loop which connects consumers’ households to the communications network. A spokesman said this would increase broadband penetration in the twenty-five member states of the E.U. by five to 10 per cent, stimulate investment and reduce prices for consumers. A Commission spokesman said the business potential is huge, as the E.U. has 200 million power lines running directly into houses, schools and businesses.

In particular, powerline communications (PLC) would improve access for consumers in isolated areas because coverage under the electricity supply grid is 100 percent, compared to around 20 per cent for broadband. The commission wants national authorities to tackle this obstacle, which concerns interference with radio transmissions

Opponents of PLC technology claim that the systems cause interference. But participants in a meeting with national regulatory authorities on Friday agreed that concerns over interference should not be enough to allow utilities companies to refuse to offer access to broadband service providers over their transmission network. The Commission argues that there are far fewer problems with interference than in the early days of this technology, and that any remaining problems can be overcome relatively easily.

PLC works by bringing a broadband signal via cable, wireless or leased line to a local transformer. From there, the signal is carried to the end user by power lines. Each transformer serves, on average, 150 to 250 households. A device called a “head-end,” installed at the transformer, distributes the signal to end users. They, in turn, need an appropriate modem to access the service.

Under the terms of the Commission’s recommendation, national regulators must ensure a level playing field for PLC providers by making sure they do not face stricter standards on interference than those faced by other technology groups, such as electrical equipment manufacturers.

Powerline communications technology is still at a rather experimental stage in the E.U., with most users testing the technology on a trial basis.

According to data from the PLC Utilities Alliance quoted by the Commission, the largest number of PLC users is in Germany, which has 6,700 subscribers. Austria has 3,000 users, while there are 1,500 in France and 2,000 in Austria.

The U.S gave the go-ahead to broadband over powerline (BPL) technology in October 2004. The total number of users there is estimated to be around 4,320.