IBM is making inroads into the fledgling BPL (broadband over power line) market: It has detailed a pilot project it's working on in Houston with CenterPoint Energy to offer several dozen of the utility's customers powerline broadband access.

A handful of BPL trials have been conducted in the US over the past few years, but the CenterPoint project is the first domestic project IBM has been involved with, according to Bernie Hoecker, vice president of IBM's global energy and utility group.

CenterPoint's trial area covers some 220 homes in south-west Houston, 30 of which have signed on so far for the free test project; CenterPoint plans to cap participation at 50 customers. The programme began in June and will run through August, at which point CenterPoint will assess its results and decide whether to launch a commercial BPL offering.

What attracted CenterPoint to BPL is the technology's potential to give utility companies greater insight into what's happening on their electrical grids, said Don Cortez, CenterPoint's vice president of BPL technology. Automated meter readings and better maintenance monitoring are among the potential benefits.

"What we're trying to do is bring our grid into the 21st century," Cortez said. "For us to be able to monitor and be able to see what's happening in the grid, rather than just react to when it goes out - that's huge."

The pilot project has had a few hiccups. After running earlier projects in Europe, Mitsubishi Electric Power Products , another CenterPoint vendor, had to adjust some of its equipment and systems to accommodate differences in the US electrical grid. IBM and CenterPoint also have to keep a close eye on interference - BPL's potential to disrupt other radio frequency devices has inflamed some groups like amateur radio operators and become a political issue. CenterPoint and IBM both say their interference measurements are now stabilised within acceptable bounds.

If CenterPoint does offer it as a consumer service, Cortez said he expects the price to be comparable to that of cable modem or DSL service.

With customer demand for the fledgling technology still uncertain, though, CenterPoint's plans remain in flux. One possibility is that CenterPoint will continue updating its back-end infrastructure to take advantage of automation advances, but hold off on launching a consumer service, Cortez said.

IBM has previously worked on BPL tests in Italy, and it's in the planning stages of several projects with other US customers, according to Hoecker.

"We see it as an emerging technology," he said. "It's fledgling right now, but we're pretty exited about it."