Outllook: United gives the Internet a plug

When Sir Desmond Pitcher embarked on his madcap scheme to create the ultimate multi-utility, the joke was that it would only be a matter of time before he began offering a telephone service down the same line as water, electricity and gas.

Life sometimes imitates fiction and that is what is about to happen at United Utilities. Not content with proving that water and electricity mix about as well as the executive chairman does with his chief executives, the company is about to throw another utility into the mix. Next year United Utilities plans to start a pilot trial linking customers of Norweb to the Internet via their domestic electricity supply. Even if you can get over the (electric) shock of it, the thought of connecting to the World Wide Web in this way still sounds far-fetched. Pick up the iron and make that call.

Norweb is certain the technology works and has got a fistful of worldwide patents to prove it. Moreover, it has the backing of Nortel, one of the world's biggest telecom equipment groups. Isolate the electrical noise that causes power cables to interfere with communications signals, and low voltage electricity cables turn into the perfect local area network for broad band data transmission. The possibilities are endless - CD quality audio, video clips and high-speed gaming, all delivered via the meter under the stairs.

Where the strategy looks dangerously like falling apart is in the marketing. A quarter of households may now possess a personal computer, if you believe the propaganda, but just 2.5 per cent are linked to the Internet. To make the idea pay its way, the men from Norweb have to persuade 10 per cent of its 2 million customers to connect to the Internet via its cables, which looks like a hopelessly tall order.

Undaunted they dream of the day when customers will literally be able to connect to the Internet by plugging a three pin plug into the wall. Now if Sir Des could arrange for the water and gas to be piped in that way too...