The European Union is adding its support to an initiative to harness Europe's power lines in an attempt to extend broadband Internet access across the community.

The EU hopes its support of power line communications will help overcome technical hurdles and lead to greater competition in the broadband market. The European Commission is a key sponsor of the Open Power Line Communications European Research Alliance (OPERA), which is part of its "Broadband for All" program, said Michael Koch, a member of the initiative and vice president of strategy and regulation at Powerplus Plus Communications.

More than 35 European energy companies, telecommunications equipment manufacturers, consultancies and universities are meeting this week in Madrid to hammer out details of the four-year OPERA project, which the Commission is sponsoring to the tune of €9 million, according to Koch. The first phase, lasting two years, has a budget of €20 million; it aims to develop a uniform European Power Line Communications standard, he said.

"We currently have a number of proprietary systems in use around Europe, each with their strengths and weakness," Koch said. "For power-line communications to become a viable business, standardization is essential."

This technology transmits data signals over electricity lines. While some of the early systems have delivered Internet access at speeds up to 2Mbps (bits per second), others in the pipeline promise data rates of up to 10Mbps and more. The technology is designed to support other applications, such as telephony, automatic meter-reading, security and home-appliance networking.

Although it competes head-on with wire-based DSL (digital subscriber line) and wireless LAN technologies in the local loop, the Commission is particularly keen to harness the technology in order to extend broadband service in structurally weak and rural areas.

However, vendors trying to explore this market have faced diffculties, complaining that the technology is complex, costly and does not offer sufficiently swift returns on investments made in it. Siemens exited the market in Germany in 2001, blaming this in regulatory delays and a lack of European standards.

OPERA members hope to build European standards: "We are establishing committees that will be working closely with European and other international standardization bodies." Koch said. "One of our primary goals is to move away from proprietary systems."