Big River will offer Internet via power lines

Monday, March 15, 2004

In June 2002, Jeff Worley found a postcard from Ameren Corp. in his mailbox outside his home in the Woodland Hills Subdivision in Cape Girardeau. But this wasn't his monthly electric bill. This card offered Worely an upgrade from his dial-up home Internet connection at no cost as part of a trial for a new product.

"I had never heard of PLC," Worley said of power-line communications, which delivers broadband Internet service via normal electrical lines. Frustrated with dial-up service and seeing that the price was right, Worley phoned the number on the card. Within days, he was surfing at high speed through a blue box plugged into a wall outlet.

Fifty-one of his neighbors did the same.

Pretty soon, the technology was watercooler fodder at Notre Dame Regional High School, where Worley is dean of students and technology coordinator. He found himself inundated with questions, the most common of which was, "How and when can I get it?"

Two years later, local test provider Big River Telephone Company has the answer.

"The target date is June 1," said Big River president Kevin Cantwell. "That's when we'll begin the phased introduction of BPL."

BPL -- broadband over power line -- is the Federal Communications Commission's new name for the service, which Big River -- in conjunction with Ameren Energy Communications and Communications -- is ready to bring to all of Cape Girardeau as an alternative to cable and DSL connections.

The technology works by running T1 lines alongside overhead or underground power lines into the service area. There the line is run from a transformer box to a conversion unit that intercepts the Internet signal, converts it into data and passes it into the electrical lines. From there, it's accessible from the regular electrical outlets in the home.

When plugged into one of the outlets, the blue box receives the data and sends it to the adjoining computer.

"Once the elements are sprinkled on the electrical grid, it's just a matter of going from house to house," said Kevin Keaveny, Big River vice president of engineering and operations.

Except for some minor configuration problems in a few different computers, the test has been a success on his end, Keaveny said. From the feedback received from test subjects, the same seems to be true on the other end.

"I've been very happy with it," said test subject Michele Elder. "It's faster than the dial-up, and I haven't had to call the company about any problems."

The blue box enabled Elder to get rid of an extra phone line, needed to keep the phone open while she worked online. She is in charge of Web design and support for Southeast Missouri State University and often works from home on her PC. The proposed June 1 rollout date works well for Elder because it will coincide with the end of the university's dial-up services due to budget cuts.

BPL provides connection at speeds comparable to cable and DSL, and Cantwell believes an advantage of BPL is that it is coming over an existing part of the infrastructure, offering service to people who at present can only use dial-up, especially rural residents.

"It is not the end-all, be-all of Internet connections," Cantwell said. "It will just be another piece of our network solution."

When Chuck Voss moved to the Woodland Hills subdivision in July, he found his iMac could only dial into the Net at barely half its normal speed.

"The previous owner was a BPL test subject," Voss said. "He kept telling me he could get me that blue box. I was getting so frustrated with the dial-up. I kept pestering him until finally he found the box he had packed away and gave it to us."

Voss is the only Mac user in the test area. When he approached Big River about the different platform, he said they weren't sure how it would work.

"They came over and hooked me up immediately," Voss said. "It worked out well. I love it. It couldn't be any easier."

Voss is now using it on his wireless hub, enabling him to log on from his PowerBook laptop.

Though excitement seems to be building, Cantwell said, the rollout will be low key.

"We're not preselling this or anything," he said. "We will phase it in neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street. As soon as a street is lit up, we'll probably take the blue boxes door to door to inform residents that the service is available."

Though Ameren and Big River agree that a price has not yet been nailed down, both predict the cost will be competitive with cable and DSL. It will definitely cost more than the residents of Woodland Hills currently are paying.

"They got me," Worley said. "I can never go back to dial-up after this."

335-6611, extension 137

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