Ten European utilities in Sweden, Germany, The Netherlands, Italy and England have begun testing the feasibility of delivering high-speed, residential Internet access over power lines. If tests prove successful, so-called digital power line service may open a large market in Europe that could see utilities competing directly with traditional telecommunications companies to offer voice and data services. Whether that market could one day affect the deployment of fiber optic cable in the local loop is difficult to predict. Proponents see it as an immediate source of bandwidth to every home, while critics wonder if its top speed will keep pace with future needs. "It's not clear yet where this development will take us. It has potential, so everyone should watch it," said Hartmut Mauritz, director of business development for Siemens AG Public Communication Networks in Munich, Germany. Aimed at full-scale rollout of service in mid-1999, current trials to test technical feasibility and marketing strategies involve a small number of subscribers. The technology offers a transfer rate of 1 Mb/s, which is 10 times faster than an integrated services digital network line. Engineers now envision rates of up to 2 Mb/s. For European consumers, who generally pay on a per-minute basis for an Internet connection, the instant access and flat-rate fees are potentially attractive. Consumers using the service connect a computer to a cable-modem-type device that has a coaxial lead to the electric meter, where the signal is converted onto the voltage cable and sent over the power line to a base station serving roughly 20 homes. Base stations feed in turn to main stations, where the network is controlled. From there, the signal is transferred to a fiber optic network and routed over the Internet, except where "backhaul" fiber optic cable remains to be installed. The technology used in these trials was developed by Nor.Web DPL Ltd., a joint venture between Canada's Nortel Networks in Brampton, Ontario, and the UK's United Utilities plc in London. Nor.Web has conducted tests in North America, but details of deployment and timing are not available.