Texas to use power lines for broadband

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 11:45 a.m. Dec. 21, 2005. It now includes three new paragraphs at the end. It was updated again at 5:10 p.m. to change Amateur Radio Relay League to American Radio Relay League. We apologize for the error.

A company based in Germantown, Md., will modernize an electrical power grid in Texas using broadband-over-power-line technology.

The company, Current Communications Group, joined with TXU Electric Delivery, an electric transmission and distribution company, to announce the development of a “smart grid” that will enable better management of the power distribution network and provide high-speed Internet access to 2 million homes and businesses in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and other Texas communities.

Tom Baker, chairman and chief executive officer of TXU, said that when the new system is completed by the end of 2006, it will mark a significant advance in the electrical grid’s evolution.

“The smart grid is going to enable us to have the grid itself talk back to us on a regular basis,” he said during a telephone conference call with reporters Dec. 19.

“It will tell us what its problems are, where it has outages, give us data from meters, tell us what voltage fluctuation may exist,” Baker said. He added that the smart grid would help in locating where maintenance is needed.

Baker said the improved reliability of such a grid would also contribute to economic development in the area. TXU is the sixth largest transmission and distribution company in the country, and it supplies electricity to a third of the state’s population.

Under the new agreement, TXU will pay about $150 million in the next 10 years for an ownership stake in Current Communications Group, which will design, build and operate the new network and charge for broadband service.

William Berkman, the Current Communications Group’s chairman and co-founder, said it is too early to announce retail prices but added that the company’s fees start at $29.95 per month for 1 megabit/sec service in the Cincinnati area.

Berkman said the company’s technology will not interfere with amateur or ham radio operators, who often complain that broadband transmissions sent over power lines disrupt radio communications.

“We actually do not use ham radio operators’ frequencies presently,” he said during the telephone press conference. “We just made a decision because of their concerns that we were willing for the moment not to use their frequencies."

The technology is used in 50,000 homes in Cincinnati, Berkman said, and the company has not received any complaints from ham radio operators in two years.

Jory McIntosh, assistant director of the American Radio Relay League’s West Gulf Division, said ham radio operators provide vital communications in times of emergencies and it’s important that frequencies remain clear of any interference.

He said the ham radio community wants to work with TXU and Current during installation of the BPL technology and help them identify and correct any interference problems that may arise.

“Current has shown in Cincinnati that it can operate without causing harmful interference to amateur radio operators,” he said in an e-mail message to Federal Computer Week. “We expect they will do no less here. Once their system is established, we hope that TXU and Current will continue to work with us to mitigate any interference issues that may come up in the future.”

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