While for those who keep up, it will be possible to e-mail your fridge possible to e-mail your fridge

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The Independent Online
A high-speed, low-cost connection to the Internet via your electricity meter? Charles Arthur, Science Editor, looks at a breakthrough by an electricity generator and a telecommunications company.

The day is fast approaching when you can e-mail your fridge to check what's inside, or log on remotely to your video recorder to ensure it's going to tape your favourite afternoon programme.

The medium that will allow this totally connected world is not futuristic fibre-optic cable; it's the humble three-phase electricity cable. In time, the whole of your home could work like the sophisticated local area networks (LANs) used by larger companies - but linked by its three-pin plugs instead of computer plugs.

The first fruits of this revolution appeared yesterday, when the electricity company Norweb and the telecomms company Nortel announced that they have worked out how to send Internet data over the mains power supply into the home at up to 1 megabit per second - or 20 times faster than the fastest existing telephone modem.

The system receives radio-frequency signals sent over the power lines from the local substation, and converts them back at the customer's electricity meter into packets of computer data. All the customer needs is a small box at the meter, and a computer cable and card for their PC.

"I've been in telecomms research and development for 30 years, and this has been a Holy Grail," said Ian Vance, head of R+D for Nortel. "With this, the Net becomes everything that has been promised: you can download video and CDs, play high-speed games, hold videoconferences."

Though the initial use, in trials in 2,000 homes in Norweb's heartland in the north-west of England next spring, will simply be to provide a high-speed Internet link for home computers, John Laycock, a senior researcher at Nortel, said: "Having an Internet address for every plug in the home would be the Utopia."

That would allow the ultimate connected home, in which you could e-mail fridge@home, and study the picture relayed by the videocamera to see if you need milk; or turn the lights off and burglar alarm on, all from a remote location, using your own password. First, though, researchers must do more work to see how wiring systems in homes affect data transmission.

Initially the two companies will aim to offer a flat-rate, permanent connection to the Internet for Norweb customers who want it. They have tested it and found it does not interfere with any domestic appliances such as stereos or radios.

The system might seem like the death knell for telecomms companies, since everyone who wants to get on the Net will have electricity. But even Norweb disagrees. "I think the demand for the Internet is such that this will find its place alongside other delivery systems," said Peter Dudley, a vice-president.

People are definitely keen to get onto the global network - something which advertisers have been quick to recognise. A survey released yesterday showed that advertisers spent $214.4 million (pounds 134m) for "banners" on Internet sites from April to June. The total for the first half of the year was $344m - a 322 per cent increase from the first half of 1996.

The total figures, collated by Coopers & Lybrand, are modest compared to the billions spent on other forms of advertising.

But it's growth that matters. In the second quarter of 1996, advertisers spent just $52m to buy space on popular sites on the Internet. Such explosive growth could signal a revolution in the way advertisers reach us - and, perhaps, the ways we try to avoid them.

Many advertisers still use the "banner" approach, buying space at the top of the most popular Web sites - notably those used to search for material on the Net. The survey found that consumer advertising accounted for 30 per cent of the spend, with financial services taking 22 per cent, computers 21 per cent, and new media and telecomms 7 per cent each.

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