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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 22, 2002

HECO wants to carry Internet on its power lines

By John Duchemin
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i's largest power company wants to bring the Internet into people's homes and businesses in a new way: through their power lines.

Hawaiian Electric Co. will conduct a live demonstration in January of new "powerline communications" technology, in which power outlets in about 10 homes in McCully will become much more than plugs.

They will serve as high-speed, two-way communications links that let HECO read meters and monitor electrical use, and could possibly deliver content to and from the Web within a few years.

If the demonstration goes well, Hawaiian Electric plans a larger-scale demonstration on about 100 homes for 2003. If that works, the service could be rolled out eventually to most of the utility's 275,000 customers, said Karl Stahlkopf, chief technology officer.

"There's all kinds of possibilities for new services that we could deliver to our customers," said Lynne Unemori, Hawaiian Electric spokeswoman. "Just having that communications capability lets us be a lot more sophisticated."

The technology was developed by firms on the Mainland, and has been demonstrated with growing success in other states. It's an outgrowth of electric companies' desire to find new ways to save money and expand service offerings, and the telecommunications industry's exploration of new ways to get high-speed communications lines into homes and businesses.

The latest technology filters out much of the electrical noise that made power lines unsuitable for telecommunications.

Compared with other Internet media, the technology is relatively young and untested, but it eventually could give people a new way to link into the Internet at high speeds. A medium-voltage line used in standard power transmission can carry as much as 45 megabytes per second of digital information, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Powerline Communications Association, a group representing electric utilities and developers of powerline Internet technology.

Electric companies would become potential players in the telecommunications business, as providers of the crucial "last mile" network linking homes to the "pipes" of the World Wide Web.

Last-mile linkages are among the biggest obstacles to Internet development. The fiber-optic networks that carry much Internet traffic are extremely expensive to install at a neighborhood level — which is why the last mile is currently a patchwork of cable modem services such as RoadRunner, copper telephone wire services such as Verizon DSL, and various wireless services.

Power lines are cheap, and the well-developed power grids could deliver Internet services to practically every home.

But such services are years away. More exciting to Hawaiian Electric is the potential for easy data collection and two-way communication with customers.

The company wants to use powerline communication to get real-time meter readings, eliminating the need for house-to-house visits by meter readers.

The technology could also serve to help customers fine-tune their power use, Unemori said. New generations of "smart" appliances could be equipped to talk to the power grid so the utility could tell them to go into energy-saving standby during hours when they are not normally in use.

"That way, we could limit the number of generators we have to use, and we would be more efficient," Unemori said.

Hawaiian Electric will work with Mainland technology developers on its demonstration projects. A preliminary experiment in Hawai'i this year led to impressive results, said Hawaiian Electric's Stahlkopf.

"This is some very, very exciting technology," he said.

Reach John Duchemin at jduchemin@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8062.