The California Public Utilities Commission approved a plan Thursday allowing providers of high-speed Internet services to test electricity lines to deliver online access throughout the state.
CPUC commissioner Rachelle Chong, who drafted the plan, said broadband over power lines, or BPL, could become a new competitor to Internet services delivered via telephone, cable and satellites and help reduce prices for consumers.
BPL uses existing utility lines delivering power to neighborhoods to carry broadband signals into homes.
It has been touted by equipment makers and regulators as a possible competitor to cable and telecommunications services, which handle almost all of the roughly 40 million U.S. residential broadband connections.
BPL technology also could allow utilities to develop so- called smart grid applications to more actively monitor and manage the distribution of electricity, said Chong, a former member of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.
Until recently, U.S. utilities interested in BPL have faced various financial and technical problems. The signals that carry data over electrical lines can cause interference with radio equipment and can travel only a short distance before weakening, requiring repeaters in many areas.
Nevertheless, utilities such as TXU Corp. , Texas's largest utility, and Cinergy Corp. in Ohio are testing the service with privately held BPL provider Current Communications Group, of Germantown, Maryland.
The company also is working on early trials with two California utilities -- Edison International's Southern California Edison subsidiary and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a municipally-owned utility.
Those projects involve both smart grid applications and BPL Internet services to homes, said Jim Dondero, vice president of marketing at Current Communications.
The regulatory commission adopted guidelines for electric utilities and companies that wish to develop and test projects in California.
The commission turned down an alternative plan that proposed some slightly different regulations.
Among the adopted guidelines, electric utility affiliates and other developers can invest in and operate BPL systems.
Utility affiliates would have to follow CPUC rules for transactions between a utility and a BPL affiliate to protect against cross-subsidies, the commission said.
Companies installing BPL equipment on utility poles also would have to pay a fee for the attachments.