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Internet over power lines possible — but is it practical?

Jan. 19, 2003


The electrical lines that have been bringing electricity into your home for years may one day also bring you high-speed Internet access.

That's the vision of the future offered by Alan Shark, president of the Power Line Communications Association, a group promoting technology to distribute Internet access over power lines.

The technology to do it exists, Shark said. "The biggest challenges now are getting the product to market."

The Federal Communications Commission has been examining the technology in recent months, said Edmond Thomas, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology. "Every power plug in your home becomes a broadband connection," he recently reported to the FCC's board of commissioners. "It's starting to look like a very viable technology."

Because electrical lines run to nearly all homes, they could potentially serve more customers than dial-up, cable or DSL Internet access.

At least that's the promise. In practice so far, the technology hasn't quite lived up to that promise.

Talk of using power lines for Internet access is nothing new. CNet.com has articles going back more than four years on the topic. Three years ago one news story said Internet access over power lines was a "near reality."

PLC (Power Line Communication) was quite the rage in Europe in the late 1990s, with a number of successful field trials. And though successful, there were a few problems. In one trial in an England neighborhood, metal lampposts were acting as antennae, retransmitting users' Internet downloads as radio waves. PLC trials in Germany were called successful, though the connections they provided were little faster than a regular dial-up Internet connection. Most of the utilities that sponsored these trials eventually discontinued their research.

Promoters say the technology has evolved and improved greatly with time. They say utilities stand ready to make a bundle by selling Internet access over power lines.

That view is only partly shared by Primen, a company that provides analysis of the U.S. energy market.

Technology to offer Internet over power lines has indeed improved, according to David Lineweber, the president of Primen. The real question isn't one of technology, but one of simple business principles: After the expense of implementing Internet power-line technology, will a utility be able to turn a profit?

"Right now, the answer appears to be no," Lineweber said in a press release last summer. "Our analysis shows that the cost of implementation is much too high to appeal to a broad customer base."

Another problem utilities might face is playing catch-up in the already crowded Internet access field. Utilities would be forced to price access low enough to compete against existing dial-up, cable and DSL access providers.

PLC technology may not bring the Web to you via your wall outlet, but it may help you stay connected during a hotel stay.

A Marriott hotel in Wilmington, N.C. recently announced it would use PLC technology to provide Internet access to its 90 guestrooms, meeting rooms and lobby.

Each computer connects to an interface that creates a local area network with high-speed Internet access by using the building's existing electrical wiring.

While PLC technology has promise, I suspect the momentum behind "Wi-Fi" -- the low-power wireless system that's all the rage for businesses that want to distribute Internet access without running cables -- will dominate the market.

THE GREAT FIREWALL. In a move to restrict information available to its people, the Republic of China has begun blocking Web sites that host online journals, or "blogs."

China has long used its national firewall to control what parts of the Internet its citizens can access. Chinese Web surfers were blocked from accessing Blogger.com, an online journal Web site, because of the content one man has been posting.

The user was posting instructions for other Chinese Web surfers who wished to circumvent the country's national firewall. Doing so would bypass the government's censorship and control. In addition to blocking sites with their firewall, the Chinese government has also hijacked domains by changing their DNS information to also block users' access.

Censorship isn't a new phenomenon in China. New laws were passed more than two years ago prohibiting access to Western news sites, and requiring anyone posting news to have special permission from the government.

KAZAA UNDER FIRE. The users of the KaZaA peer-to-peer file-swapping software better enjoy the service while they can, because the heat is on.

A federal judge recently gave record labels and movie studios the green light to sue Sharman Networks, KaZaA's parent company, in federal court.

Sharman has argued all along it could not be sued in the U.S. because the company is incorporated in the South Pacific island of Vanuatu and based in Australia -- which puts it outside the reach of the U.S. legal system.

The entertainment industry has collectively pursued legal action against Sharman for copyright infringement. KaZaA has millions of users, who use the service to swap files, including copyrighted music, video and other works.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson refused to dismiss the lawsuit against Sharman because it does most of its business in the U.S. -- where its software contributes to the alleged piracy and copyright infringement. When doing business in the U.S., the company is subject to U.S. copyright laws, the judge wrote in his ruling.

A Sharman representative said the company would file a counterclaim.

VIRUS NEWS. Computer security firms are reporting the latest computer virus making the rounds is the W32.Sobig.A@mm virus.

The virus is a threat to Microsoft Windows 95 and later operating systems. Once a computer is infected, it e-mails itself to all addresses on a PC, and can spread across a network.

Fortunately, W32.Sobig.A@mm is relatively easy to detect. It arrives as an attachment to an e-mail with one of these four subject lines: "Re: Movies,", "Re: Sample," "Re: Document" and "Re: Here is that sample."

The actual virus is attached to that e-mail as a .pif file. Executing the file starts the infection.

The virus recently was ranked the second most-reported virus, second only to the Klez virus, according to Symantec.

All anti-virus programs will detect the bug; if you have questions about a possible virus on your computer, I recommend visiting your anti-virus software provider's Web site for an update.

Comments and questions about this column may be sent to jbrooks@myoldkentuckyhome.com, or visit www.myoldkentuckyhome.com on the World Wide Web.

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