Information Highway: Possibilities Excite U.S. Electric Utilities

Article excerpt

SEATTLE _ Traditionally content to light up America, electric utilities now want to serve their customers in other ways, and may one day offer cable television, link home computers to the outside world and even provide telephone service.

The electric utility industry wants a part of the new information highway that Vice President Al Gore is touting heavily and which Congress is trying to promote in its review of federal communication laws.

"I think, it's a natural," said John E. Hayes Jr., chairman of Western Resources, parent of three electric utilities in Kansas and Oklahoma. "We have the rights of way, the expertise and there are a lot of similarities."

Hayes, a former chairman of Southwestern Bell, is one of several executives of major utilities that once ran telephone companies. He insists it's not much different operating a telecommunications system and an electric grid.

The nation's private and public electric utilities have one advantage: They already have, or are developing, hundreds of miles of fiber optic, two-way communication lines to link their customers as part of new energy management programs.

With the new information highway expected to be worth by some estimates tens of billions of dollars in business, these utility voice and data lines could serve as major revenue producers, according to utility executives and industry analysts.

The role of electric utilities in telecommunications brought intense interest Monday at the annual convention of the country's 261 private utility companies.

The utility executives were told at a panel discussion that the Electric Power Research Institute, the industry's primary research arm, was expected shortly to complete a five-month, $425,000 study on the economic and technical issues surrounding expansion by utilities into telecommunications.

One reason for the great interest is that many of the fiber optic systems being developed for energy management could go 95 percent unused, leaving plenty of excess capacity, said Marina Mann, who is heading the industry research program at EPRI.

During the panel discussion, David Ratcliff, chairman of Mississippi Power Co., suggested that revenue from telecommunications might offset increasing pressures utilities are facing to hold down electricity rates in an increasingly competitive industry. …