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Internet Carried On Power Lines

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By Yuki Noguchi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 6, 2005

The Washington area is a major hub for technology that transmits high-speed Internet connections over power lines, and yesterday the city of Manassas celebrated becoming one of the first communities in which the service is commercially available.

Chantilly-based Communication Technologies Inc. announced it had completed citywide installation of the technology and will step up marketing it to Manassas's 12,500 households.

"This is an achievement of a major national milestone," said Joseph E. Fergus, founder and chief executive of Communication Technologies, or Comtek, which so far has 700 paying residential customers in Manassas. He said the technology "will be deployed within two years to scores of communities across the U.S."

Comtek charges $38.95 a month for the service and shares revenue with the city, which provided access to municipal power and fiber-optic networks. It has been testing the service there since 2001.

Germantown-based Current Communications Group LLC has a similar trial in Potomac and launched a commercial version of its service in Cincinnati last year. The Cincinnati network reaches 50,000 homes, and Current has thousands of paying customers.

For years, broadband-over-power-line technology, which allows access to the Internet through any electrical socket in the home or office, has been touted as a potential alternative to service from cable and phone companies. The technology still has its skeptics, who note that PPL Corp. announced earlier this week that it would end its trial in the Lehigh Valley region of eastern Pennsylvania because it could not get enough customers to generate a profit.

"The technology works, but the business model is still up in the air," said Scott Cleland, chief executive of the Precursor Group, a research firm.

Companies such as Comtek and Current say they have a key advantage over the competition because they tap into an infrastructure that already exists. They partner with power companies to tap the electric grid and the network of power lines that already run into the home, so communities can hook up to another source of the Internet without having to dig up trenches to lay new cables in the streets.

The technology is far less expensive than deploying fiber-optic cable, or even deploying digital subscriber line service, said Jay Birnbaum, president of Current, which in July received financial backing from Google Inc. and investment firm Goldman Sachs & Co. The company is conducting six trials, including in Los Angeles and Honolulu.

Comtek is in discussions to deploy its technology in nine additional communities, Fergus said. Comtek installs its equipment on power lines, which transmit the Internet connection over a high-frequency signal that does not interfere with power transmission. At home or in the office, users have a modem that adapts the signal to computers. Fergus said he hopes that over time, Comtek also will be able to offer Internet telephony service over those lines.

Christine Williamson, a Manassas resident, said she was among the first 13 testers of the Comtek service. Williamson, who also subscribes to Comcast Corp.'s cable modem service, said she may eventually rely solely on her power-line Internet service because it goes out less frequently than the cable service and is comparably fast and costs less.

"It's not competition yet, but . . . it may turn out to be yet another way in which people are competing with us," said Eric Rabe, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc., the main phone and DSL high-speed Internet provider in the Washington area.


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