The European Union hopes its support of power line communications (PLC) will help overcome technical hurdles and lead to greater competition in the broadband market.
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The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, is a key sponsor of the Open PLC European Research Alliance (Opera), which is part of its Broadband for All programme, said Michael Koch, a member of the PLC initiative and vice-president of strategy and regulation at Powerplus Plus Communications.
More than 35 European energy companies, telecommunication equipment manufacturers, consultancies and universities are meeting in Madrid this week to detail the four-year Opera project, which aims to develop a uniform European PLC standard.
"We already have a number of proprietary systems in use around Europe, each with their strengths and weakness," Koch said. "For power line communications to become a viable business, standardisation is essential."
PLC technology transmits data signals over electricity lines. While some of the early systems have delivered internet access at speeds up to 2Mbps, others in the pipeline promise data rates of up to 10Mbps and more.
The technology is designed to support other applications, such as telephony, automatic meter reading, security and home-appliance networking.
Although PLC competes head on with wire-based digital subscriber line and wireless Lan technologies in the local loop, the commission is particularly keen to harness the technology to extend broadband service in structurally weak and rural areas.
A few years ago, Germany emerged as a hotbed of PLC development. Several regional electricity companies entered the power line fray, including Eon, EnBW Energie and MVV Energie.
Eon has since abandoned the PLC market, claiming the technology is too complicated and costly to deploy, with little chance of seeing a return on investment any time soon.
Siemens had also hoped to be at the forefront of PLC technology, but left the market in 200, citing regulatory delays and a lack of European standards.
In 1999, Nortel Networks pulled the plug on its PLC activities in the UK, claiming the technology would remain a niche product at best. Like Eon, it saw little chance of recouping the millions of dollars needed to develop reliable products and market the service.
"We are establishing committees that will be working closely with European and other international standardisation bodies." Koch said. "One of our primary goals is to move away from proprietary systems."
Opera members includes Ascom Systec, Main.net Communications and the Mitsubishi Electric Information Technology Centre Europe.
John Blau writes for IDG News Service