Plug in to broadband

Why wait for fast internet connection via a phone line or cable when your home's electrical wiring could do the job? Michael Pollitt investigates the potential (and the pitfalls) of internet via the mains
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The Independent Online

Imagine a world where broadband is available in every room: a broadband connection that's 20 times as fast as standard dial-up. And a home that's already wired in a convenient way without installing a network or relocating telephone and cable outlets. It's all coming true for the people of Winchester, where always-on broadband connections are being made available from their 13-amp sockets.

Here's the secret - Power Line Telecommunications (PLT) or, as we'll call it here, powerline broadband. The concept is simple, but it's taken years to develop. Essentially, the technology carries radio signals along the existing electric cables from a nearby substation - usually within 400 metres - to and from your premises. All you need is a special modem and a spare electrical socket.

But there may be a problem. Amateur radio enthusiasts and others across the world have expressed concern about radio-frequency interference. The powerline broadband signals are injected into Winchester's street distribution system at more than 60 substations. Do they radiate from the substations, electricity cables or house wiring to interfere with radio users?

Professor Peter Cochrane, a former head of research at BT, is highly sceptical. Writing about powerline broadband on the website silicon.com last May, he said: "I can guarantee that no one will get this technology to work as advertised." Cochrane cites numerous issues, including radio interference, unsuitable cables, distance limitations and power transients swamping data signals.

That hasn't stopped Scottish and Southern Energy choosing Winchester and Stonehaven (near Aberdeen) for full-scale commercial trials, following successful pilots in Crieff and Campbeltown. The company - through its subsidiary company Southern Electric - is expecting up to 1,000 users in Winchester alone. But Cochrane's views are clear: "The laws of physics have not changed, and the telephone line well outperforms [power lines]. What these guys have promised and do promise, and what they deliver, are worlds apart."

So who's right? The answer may be found by spending some time in Winchester. Among the first users - there were 251 of them by early this month - are Liz Galfskiy and her son, Adam. Ms Galfskiy relies on her computer for an Open University course. A fixed-price dial-up AOL connection was essential, especially as Adam is a keen user too. Several broadband offers had left her unmoved - until she heard about the Southern Electric trial.

In mid-November, engineers installed a booster box adjacent to her electricity meter and provided a powerline broadband modem. For most properties nearer a substation, only the modem is needed. Setting up the broadband connection is easy; plug in the modem (£50) and connect it with an Ethernet cable to your PC. The service (£29.99 a month) includes unlimited e-mail addresses and web space too.

But is it strange to have your broadband connection through a 13-amp socket? Ms Galfskiy doesn't think so. Thanks to her technically-knowledgeable son, who installed a router, several PCs share the single connection. Broadband allows them to watch BBC news items online and listen to "crystal clear" radio. "It's excellent. I'd thoroughly recommend it," she says.

A test with the speed checker on adslguide.org.uk confirmed an impressive 980Kbps download - 20 times dial-up speeds. The upload result was a poor 478Kbps, given the advertised "up to" 1Mbps for both directions. Adam claims that he's seen 1.7Mbps connections.

But what happens when you turn on a hairdryer, run the washing machine or vacuum the carpet? "We haven't noticed any effects on the connection," Ms Galfskiy says. However, choose the electrical socket with care as, in her experience, powerline broadband dislikes multiple adaptors.

In another part of Winchester, Chris Blythe is delighted to have broadband, having suffered dial-up connections for years. A speed check showed 517Kbps download and 380Kbps upload. Working in the computer industry, Blythe has downloaded large files, and he confirms that the service is about 15 times faster than his dial-up.

"I can't get BT broadband because I'm too far from the exchange. NTL cabled the road years ago, but my house is set back and I can't get cable either. Powerline broadband was my last hope," Blythe says. "So far, it's been absolutely reliable. I'm really pleased with the service and it's good value for money."

Graham Coveyduck is the managing director of a company that builds and supports networks for commercial users and schools. Coveyduck's home-office in Winchester already has two BT broadband connections. So why add another service? "We never recommend anything until we've used it," he says.

Coveyduck has tested powerline broadband thoroughly and says it performs well, sending out large software updates to customer sites and monitoring remote systems. So how fast has it been? Downloads, he says, achieve speeds of 1.1Mbps and uploads 600Kbps. "For any business wanting to run a virtual private network to other offices, it's very good value. The only problem, in terms of recommendations to clients, is that it's just a trial service."

There's some comfort for Coveyduck from Dr Keith Maclean, the telecoms director of Scottish and Southern Energy. The technical pilots in Scotland have been so successful that, despite an imminent end to government funding, the plug will not be pulled there. "We will be continuing to provide the service on a commercial basis and are already connecting additional new customers," Maclean says. "We hope to reach 1,000 users in Winchester."

But are the speed inconsistencies between powerline broadband users significant, or are they simply a result of internet congestion elsewhere? And is the system practical on a commercial scale? Electricians installing boosters alongside meters is hardly an out-of-the-box solution. On a trial scale, powerline does provide a fast and reliable service. But to millions of users? The jury is out, for the moment.

As to the issue of interference, there's a debate going on about its possible impact on broadcasting, on the military, aeronautical and safety sectors, and on amateur radio. While supporting broadband, the Government wishes to minimise any effects it may have on radio communications. "The Office of Communications will keep interference potential under review. To date, there has not been any formal complaint regarding PLT interference," says a spokesperson for Ofcom.

Groups working under the European Commission will later this year set the future direction, levels and standards for powerline telecommunications. Germany, Austria, Sweden, Poland, Finland, Switzerland and Hong Kong have also successfully deployed powerline broadband technology. Those small beginnings in Winchester may yet help to electrify Britain's broadband market nationwide.

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