The Federal Communications Commission last month approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) designed to encourage further development of broadband-over-powerline (BPL) technologies, much to the disappointment of amateur radio operators.

With a partial dissent from Michael Copps, the commission voted 5-0 in favor of the NPRM while lauding the potential of BPL technology as a ubiquitous method to establish a third broadband communications wire into most American homes, along with digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable connections.

“This technology is tremendously exciting,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said. “It's got a long way to go, but this really has the potential to be the great broadband hope for a good part of rural America.”

Depending on the method used, BPL typically can deliver access speeds from 500 kb/s to 3 Mb/s and is being used extensively in less-developed countries. Some BPL technologies use the wireline that enters the home, while others deliver the bandwidth via a Wi-Fi network that extends from a streetlight or utility pole.

Each commissioner expressed the importance of mitigating interference concerns raised by emergency responders and amateur radio operators, but they all emphasized the belief that such issues could be addressed.

“We need to be mindful of harmful interference, but we can't let unsupported claims stand in the way of this kind of innovation,” Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said. “We need to do everything we can to try to move this forward. We need to find a new competitive pipe into the home. This is one that's available and ubiquitous. It offers enormous potential for the kind of competition we seek.”

BPL's most significant technical problems are related to concerns expressed by amateur radio operators and emergency responders that the technology emits enough radiation to create interference in their operations. With this in mind, the NPRM calls for BPL operators to comply with Part 15 rules; they also will be held responsible for mitigating any interference quickly and remotely.

Such stipulations were part of “the expectations going in,” according to Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services and associate counsel for the United Telecom Council, which represents utility companies. While supportive of the fact that the FCC is addressing the technology, the association will reserve its opinion on the NPRM until the written proposal is released, he said, which hadn't occured by press time.

In particular, Kilbourne wants to see the wording that describes how interference is determined. While utility companies acknowledge the need to quickly mitigate interference, there are questions about what constitutes interference and how other users will have to demonstrate a problem, he said.

“There is room for mischief in there,” Kilbourne said.

Jim Haynie, president of the Amateur Radio Relay League, also said he is anxious to see the text of the NPRM — one of the few areas of agreement he shares with the BPL industry.

Haynie said he was disappointed with the commission's actions during the meeting, particularly Adelstein's statement that the interference claims are “unsupported.” The ARRL has conducted several tests and has contracted an independent engineering firm to substantiate its findings, although that report is not complete, Haynie said.

Because power lines typically are not shielded, they radiate RF energy that interferes with amateur radio signals, Haynie said. Allowing BPL providers to operate without such shielding seems competitively unfair, he added.

“On one hand, you have cable companies that spend millions maintaining their system so the signal stays inside the cable, but the BPL companies can leak as much as they want,” Haynie said.

In addition to amateur radio signals, BPL transmissions can create interference that could be harmful to telephone calls and TV signals received by traditional antenna technology. In addition, BPL executives should consider the likelihood of their technology turning into a “public-relations nightmare,” he said.

“A Part 15 device must accept interference and must not cause interference,” Haynie said. “If I call and complain about interference caused by my neighbor's BPL, my neighbor's going to lose his Internet access, and he's going to be mad.”

Even if interference issues can be resolved, BPL does not appear to be surrounded by profitable economics, given the indications offered by the FCC, Haynie said. One thing BPL providers sought during the comment period was the right to operate at greater power levels than allowed under Part 15 regulations. With the FCC declining to do this, BPL operators will have to install repeaters every 1500 feet instead of 3000, Haynie said.

“Suddenly, the cost of putting in a system just got more expensive,” he said.

Indeed, BPL providers have a lot of work to do to prove that the technology can be deployed profitably before investors will buy into the technology — something they “haven't come close” to doing so far, according to Scott Cleland, CEO of The Precursor Group.

“We have been watching and waiting for power-line competition since the passage of the ‘96 [Telecom] Act,” Cleland said. “And we're not sitting at the edge of our seat right now. [BPL providers] have a lot of proving to do.

“They have to make it work on a commercial basis with some scale. A lot of things work in a lab, but they have to prove it works in the field, … that it's a real business.”

To date, most BPL deployments in the U.S. have been pilot programs serving relatively few users. One such pilot was started in North Carolina last month by Progress Energy, which conducted tests with ARRL prior to embarking on the test, according to Matt Oja, Progress Energy's director of emerging technologies.

Progress Energy is teaming with Internet service provider Earthlink on the project, which utilizes Amperion's Wi-Fi system to distribute the BPL signal into 10 to 30 homes at a time, Oja said. Progress Energy is “cautiously optimistic” it can prove that BPL can be deployed profitably on a wide-scale basis.

Whether BPL is worth a power company's investment may depend on more than broadband subscribers. Progress Energy also hopes the technology can be used to remotely read meters and to keep employees connected when they are in the field, according to spokesman Garrick Francis.

If BPL providers are able to clear the technical and monetary barriers, there will be other policy issues that will arise. For instance, many rural areas are served by government-owned cooperatives, and many question whether it is wise to let a government-owned entity compete with private companies in the broadband market.

And, in his partial dissent to the NPRM, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps expressed a concern about potential cross-subsidization, which is a possibility for any regulated utility companies — public or private.

“Is it right to allow electric ratepayers to pay higher bills every month to subsidize an electric company's foray into broadband?” Copps asked.

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