Academic journal article Management Quarterly

Broadband over Power Lines: Can It Deliver on Its Promise in Rural America?

Academic journal article Management Quarterly

Broadband over Power Lines: Can It Deliver on Its Promise in Rural America?

Article excerpt

The issue of a "digital divide' between urban and rural America is growing more acute as more parts of our lives are tied to the Internet and the vast array of communications its carries. High-speed, broadband connections to the Internet are proliferating in urban areas but have been slow to reach into rural areas.

If it is true, as some business observers claim, that the future well-being of communities depends in part upon a broadband Internet connection, then the effort to bring affordable broadband to rural America has critical consequences.

The majority of individual Internet users in the U.S. are still using a dial-up connection to get on-line, and some level of dial-up service is widely available throughout the country. But while dial-up Internet service, which tops out at 56,000 bits per second (or 56 Kbps), is acceptable for sending and receiving emails and other small packets of data, it is becoming glacially slow for the growing number of people who using the Internet for more than electronic letters.

Broadband is preferred by individuals using the Internet to purchase goods from on-line catalogs, download music, send photos to family and friends, research school papers, take a distance learning class, access news and weather, and pay bills. It is mandatory for rural doctors transmitting medical information, and for businesses and institutions that must move a lot of information quickly.

Broadband technologies--characterized as 'always on' and at least four times as fast as dial-up, require additional equipment and expense, even to make use of the relatively large, unused bandwidth that can be found on the telephone's copper wire. Coaxial or fiber optic cable can carry broadband, as can a wireless signal beamed from 'Wi-Fi' devices, microwave towers or from satellites. Broadband services by all these means are increasing in reach and falling in price.

Unfortunately, the most popular means of moving the broadband signals are confined by physical limitations to densely settled areas. At this point in time, there is no commercial broadband service that is effectively reaching large areas of rural America.

Two technologies that should reach commercial status in 2004 hold promise. One is the Ka band satellite wireless being marketed by the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC). The second are a group of competing technologies that move the broadband signal over power lines. In the past 18 months, field trials of broadband over power line (BPL) technologies in the U.S. have generated an increasing buzz in the marketplace. Because the utility infrastructure already exists to carry the broadband signal to virtually every computer in the U.S., proponents including Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, suggest that a solution to the rural-urban 'digital divide' may be at hand.

IS BROADBAND 'THE NEXT GREATEST THING'?

Technology experts and business strategists suggest that the stakes are high. TechNet, a consortium of CEOs from leading technology companies such as Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Palm and Intel, in 2002 began lobbying in Washington for assistance in meeting its goal of connecting 100 million homes with broadband speeds of 100 megabytes per second (Mbps) by 2010. (To put this challenge into context, 100 Mbps is more than 50 times the top speed of the broadband signals that currently reach approximately 40 million homes, according-to Jupiter Media Research.)

Why so fast? The CEOs of the Tech Net group point out that those are the speeds the U.S. public will need to transmit and receive the sophisticated and enormous data packets needed to meet entertainment and business needs. The CEOS claim that this level of investment in broadband will be worth $500 billion to the U.S. economy.

To meet its goal, TechNet has lobbied not for funds, but for an ease in regulation. There is one glaring exception: TechNet admits that 10 to 15 million homes in the inner cities and rural America will be left out of its ambitious plan, unless some form of subsidy is applied to bridge the gap in those areas between cost of service and ability to pay

To illustrate the fate technology experts predict for a 21st Century community living without access to broadband, comparisons are made to communities bypassed by the railroad in the late 19th Century or by the interstate highway system in the 20th century. …

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