IBM to help build bring broadband to rural areas

NEW YORK — IBM Corp. is throwing its considerable weight behind an idea that seemed to have faded: broadband Internet delivered over ordinary power lines.

The technology has been around for decades, but most efforts to implement the idea on a broad scale have failed to live up to expectations.

IBM is partnering with a small newcomer called International Broadband Electric Communications Inc. to try to make the idea work in rural communities.

Their strategy is to sign up electric cooperatives that provide power to sparsely populated areas across the eastern United States. The company will have access to 340,000 homes in Alabama, Indiana, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin. About 86 percent of them don't have access to cable Internet or DSL, the company said.

International Broadband Chief Executive Scott Lee said putting the network in place should take about two years and cost as much as $70 million.

Basic service will start at $29.95 per month and offer download speeds of about 256 kilobits per second. That's just a few times faster than dial-up, but higher-end plans will offer up to 3 megabits per second, more comparable with DSL and cable. Also, upload and download speeds are the same over the power line service; upload speeds are generally lower on DSL and cable.

It will be a new start for the technology, which has been dogged by technical hurdles and opposition from amateur radio operators who said the technology interfered with their signals.

Federal Communications Commission statistics for 2006, the most recent year available, showed that fewer than 5,000 U.S. customers had broadband access through power lines.

IBM and International Broadband say their approach has a better shot because they don't see big utility companies ever adopting broadband over power lines, which struggles to match the speed of phone or cable lines.

"Broadband service by any of the major utilities doesn't make sense," said Ray Blair, IBM's head of advanced networking. "It will never be able to compete head on."

But in rural areas, where other broadband providers can't afford to build infrastructure, Blair said the technology has come far enough in the past few years to make the power line model economical.