Analysis: Broadband over power lines coming - but not over here

Despite some initial caution, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given the green light to US providers wanting to deliver broadband over the power lines used to carry electricity into homes and offices.

But worries over interference (primarily from amateur radio enthusiasts) plus the widespread availability of DSL and cable services on this side of the Atlantic mean that Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) is unlikely to get such a broad stamp of approval over here

Some countries may decide to go for it and the European Commission has urged national telecommunications and utilities regulators to remove any obstacles to encourage competition in the market for what it prefers to call Power Line Communications (PLC).

There have also been numerous trials, including UK pilots run by Scottish and Southern Energy. But most have been quietly dropped, as much through lack of customer interest as on technical grounds.

That indifference can be put down to a number of causes including ready availability of affordable alternatives, but distance also plays a part. In a country the size of America, BPL is seen as a valuable means of extending broadband access to rural areas without the need for major investment. At least on the part of the providers.

In the UK and most of Europe however, where distances aren't so great, even in rural areas, wireless technologies such as WiFi and WiMax are expected to fill that gap. Indeed wireless is already being used for this purpose and UK communications regulator Ofcom recently issued a consultation document inviting comment on plans to raise power limits specifically to improve wireless range and bandwidth in rural areas.

That, though, doesn't mean that the underlying technology won't be employed at all - far from it. Powerline networking (also referred to as Homeplug) is thriving as a cheap and convenient way of building and extending home and small business networks.

It may not be as sexy, but it offers many of the advantages of wireless without the associated security risks, bandwidth restrictions or complexity. HomePlug even has the backing of Cisco, which doesn't necessarily mean it will succeed, but it usually does.