Startup Amperion extends broadband over power lines

With the telco shakeout threatening the traditional ways of building networks, some companies are looking for alternatives to the tried-and-true -- but also financially risky -- telco model.

US startup networking vendor Amperion Inc. is a case in point. Rather than leasing lines from telcos or laying down new fiber, Amperion's planned solution will ride over the largest network infrastructure in the world: the utility power grid.

The company is developing hardware and software that will let utility companies send high-speed data over medium-voltage power lines. (A medium-voltage power line connects low-voltage lines, which deliver power directly to buildings and to the rest of the network over distances ranging to as much as 30 miles).

The equipment will launch and repeat signals on the wire, according to Philip Hunt, Amperion's president. Other parts of the technological puzzle will be provided through a partnership with Cisco Systems Inc.

The upshot is that customers in search of broadband connectivity get a new alternative to the incumbent broadband providers -- an especially attractive bonus in hard-to-serve suburban and rural areas, since most of the country is connected to the power grid -- and utility companies can generate new revenue from their existing networks. Amperion's bandwidth could also be sold to DSL and cable providers, said David Diamond, an Amperion board member.

"Medium voltage is available, and you're already connected to it for your power. Why not use it for [Internet traffic]?" Hunt said.

The company's solution is being designed for long-haul traffic. But according to Hunt, the system is "last-mile agnostic." DSL providers could serve areas that are too far from the central office to receive service by placing DSLAMs (DSL access multiplexers) into neighborhoods and backhauling the traffic onto power lines.

Amperion is targeting its solution at the power utilities' unregulated telecom subsidiaries as well as traditional players such as ILECs (incumbent local exchange carriers), CLECs (competitive local exchange carriers), and wireless providers.

Expected bandwidth speeds have not been announced, but Hunt said that speeds will be in the "multiple megabit range". He added that the service will be delivered in ranges that customers are familiar with. "You'll see a T1 lookalike service and a DS3 lookalike service," Hunt said.

Product demonstrations are expected within five months to eight months, according to Hunt.

Whether or not power lines are the answer remains to be seen, but most industry watchers agree that something has to be done to shake up the struggling telco business.

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