A Closer Look

Electrifying Ease, if Not Speed

By Maria L. Henriques
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 10, 2005

Almost a year is a long time to wait for a faster Internet connection. But it's nothing too unusual when it comes to getting Internet access via electrical wires instead of cable or phone lines.

Power-line broadband has been talked up for years as a cheap, widely available alternative to cable-modem and digital subscriber line (DSL) access, but it has been slow to make the move from laboratories to homes.

Locally, the city of Manassas was the first to start offering power-line access, in January 2004. I first inquired in March 2004, was told it would arrive in my neighborhood that May and put my name on a waiting list.

But the May deadline was pushed back to July, then October, then January of this year. I finally got hooked up in February.

These delays happened for two major reasons. One, the Manassas Department of Utilities, which owns the electrical wiring, had to lay in a fiber-optics network to bring Internet data to and from its power lines, then install special relay units at 170 locations on its network of power lines, each covering homes within a mile at most.

The department had to build in this capability one street at a time and is still not done. John D. Hewa, Manassas's director of utilities, said that 10,000 of the city's 12,500 households can get the service and that the remainder should over the next two months.

Once electrical wires have been rigged appropriately, power-line broadband sends data back and forth over them as high-frequency waves that regular electrical equipment is deaf to but a special modem can receive and transmit.

The city also changed Internet providers when its contract with its first operator, Prospect Street Broadband, ended. A new franchisee took over in July 2004: Chantilly-based Communication Technologies Inc., or ComTek for short ( http://www.comtekbroadband.com/ ).

After all that waiting, however, actually installing a power-line connection turned out to be free of suspense. I picked up a free modem and followed directions on the box: Connect the modem to a computer's Ethernet port, then plug the modem into any electrical outlet.

Those instructions warned that I might lose power for up to three minutes, but the lights didn't even flicker -- a far smoother setup experience than with earlier cable or DSL accounts.

At $28.95 a month, less with a quarterly or yearly contract, ComTek's power-line service also handily beats prices for cable modem service and slightly undercuts Verizon's cheapest DSL offering.

Power-line broadband can't keep up with cable or DSL in terms of speed, however. ComTek advertises download and upload speeds of 300 to 500 kilobits per second (kbps) each. That's six to 10 times faster than dial-up but only a third or a sixth as quick as most cable or DSL services.

Actual performance trailed still further. Before a repeater box was installed outside my house (a free procedure done by ComTek), download speeds measured only 116 kbps in a test offered by CNet.com. Afterward, the top speed was just over 200 kbps.

As a result, streaming audio programs took a few moments to connect, and online video took considerably longer to start playing.

Whatever ComTek's power-line broadband lacked in raw speed, however, it made up for in reliability. Over six weeks of use, the connection never dropped. Neither did the electricity at home, except for a brief outage when the repeater was installed. (Manassas's utility department alleviated problems by calling ahead to ask for a convenient time for this upgrade.)

ComTek's generally unremarkable Internet package includes the usual freebies -- five e-mail accounts and 10 megabytes of space to put up a personal Web site. Technical support, available round-the-clock, was easy to reach, but calls for help with such nontechnical issues as billing often met a busy signal or a voice-mail recording.

Power-line broadband won't win any speed races, at least not as deployed by ComTek. But its cost savings are substantial, and its coverage advantages -- once a utility has prepared its system for this technology -- are even more so. DSL is limited to areas near telephone-network hubs, and cable service doesn't reach some rural areas, but everybody has electricity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company