IBM delivers rural broadband over power lines

  • Chicago (IL) - The technology to send broadband Internet access via power lines has existed for a few years now, but typically it has not been capable of delivering a high enough bandwidth at a low enough price to gain any commercial footing in a market where the chief competition is the cable and phone companies. Now, with the $7 billion stimulus package recently made available, companies are making intense efforts to deliver high speed Internet access to the smallest corners of the United States through government subsidies from the Rural Development Program and the Department of Agriculture.

    IBM has been collaborating with electric cooperatives in a major attempt to deliver high speed Internet to rural areas via electric power lines.

    To deploy the rural broadband system, the power companies use a two-prong approach. First, they run an Internet connection through fiber optics to each electrical sub-station. This requires one amplifier every mile of power line to propagate the signal. Once at the distribution points at each station over fiber, another device is then utilized to send the signal out to subscriber's homes directly over the power lines themselves. Subscribers use a modem that plugs into any wall outlet, meaning there are no new wires to run. The data is transmitted as a piggy-back signal right alongside the power which feeds homes and businesses, capable of carrying both voice and data.

    The power line signal can travel up to 25 miles away from a sub-station, which is actually much further than DSL service can travel over phone lines.

    The International Broadband Electric Communications company in Hunstville, Alabama, developed the technology and the service model. It was designed to deliver broadband Internet to rural areas with no other Internet options, as contracted through IBM's Global Services division.

    The two companies began working together last year in effort to deliver Internet service to one rural cooperative in Alabama. This week the companies announced they would begin expanding their service to include five additional cooperatives in Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and Michigan. The demand in these locations is incredibly high, said Raymond Blair, the director of advanced networks for IBM. He told the New York Times that a Michigan cooperative signed up 5,000 customers within the first two weeks.

    The service is offered by IBEC, and is not an economical alternative if you are capable of obtaining traditional broadband Internet via some other method. The cost of the service is $29.95 a month at 256 Kilobits per second and $49.95 a month at 1 Megabit per second, somewhat slower speeds than one would expect when using service provided by the phone or cable companies.