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Is providing broadband over power lines economically feasible? PCPC, a Houston-based IBM Business Partner, is quickly making people involved in the technology say "yes."

CenterPoint Energy, Houston's largest electric utility, has been exploring the possibility for more than a year. While the technology to provide broadband Internet access to CenterPoint customers seems to be falling in place, missing from the equation was the customer-service and network-integration capabilities necessary to launch the company into the broadband game.

"When this project came up, we saw an opening for us," said Bryan Joiner, the PCPC account executive on the CenterPoint project. PCPC had been a secondary vendor to the power company, with most of its product purchases going through IBM direct, Joiner said. "CenterPoint had decided what they wanted to do, but they didn't know how."

CenterPoint first partnered with Idacomm, a telecommunications company in Boise, Idaho, with expertise in building broadband over power- line networks, then tested the concept in about 250 homes in the Houston area, said Chuck Hackney, CenterPoint's manager of telecommunications services and broadband over power lines program manager.

But if CenterPoint was to attain it sgoal of rolling out broadband service over power lines, it needed a partner that could handle marketing, installation, technical support and help-desk services for potentially thousands of customers in the Houston area, Hackney said.

CenterPoint first went to Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM to solve the problem. "But [we] felt it was worthwhile to work with an IBM Business Partner who does this type of work on a daily basis rather than go within IBM," he said.

PCPC, which focuses on commercial accounts, viewed the individual engagements with home customers in aggregate as a huge business opportunity. In the initial test phase of 50 customers, PCPC offered to supply the test equipment, consisting of a Lenovo ThinkPad or ThinkCentre PC, at no cost. PCPC then did the installations at the customer site. "We offered to do that so we could be in on the front end to make sure the project was a success," Joiner said. "We stuck our neck out."

PCPC worked with both Idacomm and CenterPoint engineers to iron out technical issues, he said. "It's not quite right [for broad deployment], but it's getting close," Joiner said. "That's why we wanted to get in early. If there are issues, we can be part of the solution. We have the expertise in installing PCs to networks and getting the systems up and running; that's expertise no one else had."

If the project takes off as expected, Joiner says PCPC will not only benefit from the services revenue, but also by offering the utility customers a way to buy a Lenovo PC as part of a turnkey broadband solution.

What's more, Joiner is hoping that PCPC's willingness to help make the broadband over power lines effort work will result in more partnerships with Idacomm in similar initiatives it is involved in throughout the West.

As it stands, however, the solution provider is well on its way to forging a significant new business niche with CenterPoint.

"I give credit to the success of this program to PCPC's expertise and competency in dealing with the customer one on one," Hackney said.

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PCPC will reap services revenue and hopes to ink more partnerships with telecommunications company Idacomm. It also is on its way to forging a significant new business niche.

CenterPoint knew a rollout required partner to handle installation, tech support for thousands of customers. It first went to IBM but saw the value in using an IBM Business Partner.

In the initial test phase of 50 customers in the Houston area, PCPC supplied the test equipment at no charge, consisting of Lenovo ThinkPads and ThinkCentre PCs.

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