The company has been evaluating broadband over powerline (BPL) technology for several months through a limited trial in the NSW town of Queanbeyan but is preparing to kick off a more widespread trial in about three months' time .
We'll continue to use that particular Queanbeyan trial site as a technical trial," the company's telecommunications chief Geoff Fietz told ZDNet Australia today. "In parallel, we're putting together a business case to go to the company early next year, for a commercial pilot."
BPL is a technology that can see broadband delivered at speeds of up to 200Mbps through a normal electrical wall socket.
Country Energy's move will follow a similar trial that is being run in Tasmania by another electricity supplier, Aurora Energy. That trial will last for nine months and is initially providing broadband and Internet telephony services to Hobart homes and businesses.
Aurora Energy hopes to eventually make BPL available to all of its 250,000 Tasmanian customers.
Fietz said his company's own commercial offering would be "something similar" to Aurora's pilot, but the exact parameters of speed and pricing are "yet to be defined".
Additionally, "the location hasn't been settled yet," he said.
Country Energy mainly uses equipment from Mitsubishi which allowed speeds of up to 45Mbps, but it is in the process of upgrading to next-generation hardware which puts 200Mbps in reach.
News of Country Energy's moves came to light at a Sydney conference of local and international players in the BPL space yesterday.
Fietz told the conference Country Energy was satisfied with the reliability of its equipment, although it had had to customise the cabinets enclosing the Mitsubishi hardware to include 24-hour rotating fans as overheating could be a problem.
The executive also addressed community concerns that BPL rollouts may wreak havoc with radio communications and cause widespread interference.
"There isn't a single example of BPL causing real, scientifically-verifiable interference," he said.
Country Energy's initial trial had only generated one complaint, he said, which had turned out to be a problem unrelated to BPL.
This was despite the trial being held close to both Canberra Airport and Department of Defence installations.
Fietz said the BPL implementation would also allow his company to keep a closer eye on their electricity grid, with a particular focus on stopping energy theft.
For example, he said the high amounts of electricity required for illegal drugs like marijuana to be grown in residential hydroponic plants were often stolen so they didn't attract suspicion.
In one example Fietz had witnessed, a house had been burnt down due to a malfunction in the hydroponics equipment. With the electricity meter disconnected or bypassed by the occupants, it was only after the fact that Country Energy caught on to the energy theft.
BPL, in contrast, allows energy companies to read meters remotely -- escaping the need to visit the premises every billing period.
Triple-play the next step
Fietz said Country Energy was pushing ahead with its BPL plans on the strength of recent market research it had conducted into how BPL would be received by consumers.
The research -- which surveyed residential and small business customers in rural NSW by telephone -- found that the ability to get broadband from any electrical wall socket would be welcomed by customers.
In addition, Fietz said customers were interested in so-called 'triple-play' services that bundle data, telephone and video services over one broadband connection.
"Lower-priced voice calls are attractive," he said. "And people are prepared to pay for video -- they're not expecting video for nothing."
As a consequence, Fietz encouraged Australia's Internet, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and video service providers to start talking to the electricity utilities.
"Australian utilities are very interested in receiving approaches from various telcos and ISPs," he said. "VoIP and video providers should start talking to the utilities."
Country Energy is owned by the NSW state government and owns around 185,000 km of power lines in NSW, servicing the major regional areas outside of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.
It also owns fibre-optic cable in 16 regional towns like Dubbo, Orange and Albury. Soul Pattinson Telecommunications is one telco to extensively use that network.