Current account;Innovation

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Telephones could be upstaged by power lines on the Internet in the future, writes Sean Coughlan

The national grid for learning could shift from being a metaphor for Britain's proposed educational network to become a much more literal description of how schools use the Internet, if the ground-breaking experiments of an electricity company in the North West prove successful.

Electricity power lines are being tested to see if they can provide access to the Internet with the goal of doing away with the need for modems and telephone lines, and providing connection speeds claimed to be nearly 20 times faster than the fastest modems available now.

If the idea of getting the Internet from the electricity supply sounds about as likely as a gas-fired television set, then you might like to visit Seymour Park primary school in Trafford, Greater Manchester, the only public site in the world where the Internet is being delivered in exactly this way.

Norweb, the electricity supply company for the area around Manchester, is using Seymour Park as part of a three-year development project investigating how the spare capacity in power cables can be used to transmit data - in this case messages to and from the Internet.

Rather than using telephone lines to connect the school and the Internet, an electricity line carries the data to a local electricity sub-station where the electric cables plug into the Internet network.

At Seymour Park, there are 12 computers working as part of a local network. While each of the machines has its own local network connection, the network itself is linked to the Internet via a single power line. This runs from a unit beside the electricity meter that separates the power supply from the Internet cable.

For the home user, this would mean that, as well as being plugged into the electricity for power, the computer would have a separate cable connecting it to the Internet via an adapted electric meter (in the same way that a television is linked to a cable for the aerial). What it wouldn't mean is digging more holes in the road, as all the power lines (assuming you have electricity) are already in place.

How does it all work? First the delivery of pages is very fast. Norweb claims that it can provide access speeds that are 10 times faster than ISDN high-speed connections. For anyone who has endured the long, slow logjams of the Internet, these Formula One speeds are a joy to behold. In terms of making the Internet useful for primary schools, such high speeds are more or less essential.

"With a normal connection, the children could lose interest waiting for pages to download," says Jenny Dunn, headteacher at Seymour Park. "The new system means information arrives virtually instantaneously, maximising teaching time and keeping children on task." In practice, this means that when the children call up a page there isn't the usual process of the text appearing first and then a wait while the pictures dawdle into view.

Using the analogy of television, Jenny Dunn says that while people were once willing to wait for sets to warm up or fiddle with aerials, now viewers want to hit the remote control and get instant responses. So, too, the slow-motion Internet will have to be replaced by a much faster model, particularly if it is to be used by young children of the remote-control generation.

When I visited Seymour Park a class, mostly of 10-year-old girls, was clicking away energetically on the BBC's online education site. Pages with plenty of graphics snapped into place almost immediately. When you see the dexterity and confidence of such young children in using the Internet, you also realise how much you need a fast system to keep up with their flying fingers - anything less will fail to stretch them.

Jenny Dunn points out that three-year-olds in the school's nursery have also learned to use the Internet, so what kind of system will they expect when they reach school age? If it's slow and unresponsive, they won't be interested.

N terms of this Internet connection's capacity for handling large chunks of data, it was impressive to hear a sound recording from another part of the BBC's website, which worked clearly and straight away. Although many sites are ornamented with pieces of audio, they are notoriously unlikely to play on demand, not least because of the problems of bandwidth.

However, even though you can get on to the Internet at high speeds, if the site you're visiting has a limited capacity or is housed on a slow computer, then the familiar problems of waiting will occur. On a random basis, I found some sites quick at delivering pages, while others were as slow as on an ordinary modem connection, presumably because of the lack of speed in the site's server.

The second advantage which this prototype system offers is a permanent connection to the Internet. The link to the Internet, via the electricity cable, is a constantly open channel, so whenever you turn on your computer you are connected. For ease of use, this a great improvement on dialling up with a modem.

As well as avoiding the need to dial up, the electric-accessed Internet also does away with the need for extra phone lines. This could be a very practical advantage in primary schools that at present might only have a single phone line.

At present, unless you're a primary schoolchild in Seymour Park, this vision of the future will remain out of reach. But the system's developers at Norweb are confident of the technical reliability of using power lines for telecommunications, and later this year they plan to offer their services to paying customers.

This move from the current laboratory conditions will also raise the question of how much users will be charged and how a tariff will be set for a permanently on-line system. Price will be crucial as to whether this will be a viable alternative to the telephone companies or another good idea that sinks without trace.

The potential for this kind of evolution in Internet provision is clearly huge and there has been a corresponding level of interest. On the day of my visit, the school was preparing for the visit of a French television crew who would be following on the heels of visitors from all over Europe. Norweb also says it has received a great deal of interest from companies in the United States.

From the school's perspective, Jenny says the test, which has been running since last November, has been a great success. Her pupils have quickly gained confidence in using the Internet and the high-speed delivery has helped keep the children's attention, including those with special needs and with English as a second language.

The question of speed is vital for schools, she believes, where teachers are perpetually struggling against a lack of time. If the Internet is another long wait, then teachers won't have the time or patience to use it. Conversely, if the system works well, training teachers in Internet use becomes much easier.

Of course, making a fast-connection system work in a single model example is much easier than the vagaries of real life. How it would work around the country remains to be discovered and experience would suggest that there are always pitfalls hidden in the path of any new technology.

But if we do see a battle between the electricity and telecommunicationscompanies for Internet provision, it can only be a good thing, bringing the prospect of real competition over the quality and price of services to schools. And it would be a great relief for everyone to see the information superhighway acquiring a fast lane.

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