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The Internet From Your Electrical Outlet

It is common in Europe, as well as Cincinnati, Ohio and Manassas, Virginia. Cities from Austin to San Diego are about to launch the technology. But in New York City, there are only a few places where you can get Internet access from the same electrical outlet where you plug in your blender.

“Broadband over power lines” is what techies call it. It represents an intriguing juxtaposition of old and new technology. It is not only high-speed, but broadband over power lines may well be less expensive than DSL or cable Internet services.

But this widespread technology has not made any inroads in New York City. According to evidence presented at a recent hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Technology in Government, residents of several Trump buildings and a condominium building on the Upper West Side are the only people currently making use of this alternative for obtaining Internet access.

An initial reason for the lack of enthusiasm for broadband over power lines, which is especially applicable to densely populated cities, was a tendency for the Internet signals to interfere with other communications streams. This could have negative effects on amateur radio operators, as well as first responders. To alleviate these concerns, the Federal Communications Commission established a first set of regulations for broadband over power lines in 2004 and a revised set of regulations in August 2006 .

Although the technological concerns are legitimate, by now they have been addressed. The more enduring reason for the slow penetration of this technology, in New York and elsewhere, is that utility companies do not want to get into the business of providing Internet access. This was already apparent in 2004 and was still true after the Committee on Technology in Government hearing a few months ago.

Broadband over power lines holds great promise for consumers in rural areas, because phone and cable companies usually do not find it economical to provide high speed Internet access to these areas. But metropolitan areas like New York have no trouble attracting these companies. If utilities could also be enticed to enter this market as well, hopefully prices would become more competitive.

New York City Context for Increasing Broadband Access

The continuing attention to broadband over power lines comes as city official prepare to convene the first ever meeting of a newly established Broadband Advisory Committee, which is charged by law to "review the ways and methods of using municipal resources to accelerate the build-out of current, emerging and any newly developed broadband technologies and other advanced telecommunications and information services, such as cable, digital subscriber line (DSL), broadband over power lines (BPL), any other wire-based methods, Wi-Fi, WiMAX, and any other wireless technologies, within the city of New York."

Gotham Gazette reported almost two years ago that the state of broadband access in New York City (and most of the United States) represents a market failure, in which prices are markedly higher than in other countries. When markets fail, smart governments carefully intervene. Perhaps a little dose of big government will spur the entrepreneurial zeal necessary to make broadband Internet accessible to more New Yorkers.


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