The FCC last month unanimously approved rules for broadband over power line, or BPL, deployments, despite numerous interference concerns voiced by amateur radio operators.

“We recognize that access BPL devices cause a somewhat higher potential for interference than typical Part 15 devices,” said Anh Wride, senior engineer in the technical rules branch of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, while introducing the item during the commission's Oct. 14 meeting. “However, we believe that the significant benefits of access BPL warrant a small degree of additional risk and that this interference potential can be satisfactorily managed.”

And those benefits are rooted in the ubiquity of the nation's power grid, which makes BPL technology attractive to regulators seeking wireline broadband alternatives to DSL and cable-modem offerings, FCC Chairman Michael Powell said during the meeting.

“In addition to universal service, we talk so often about competition — well, here it is,” Powell said. “All economists will tell you magic happens when you find the third way [to provide a service like broadband].”

One concern raised by Commissioner Michael Copps was that utility companies would cross-subsidize their broadband ventures with revenues from their captive power customers. But Commissioner Kevin Martin expressed confidence that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which attended the FCC meeting to show support for the item — would protect consumers.

Meanwhile, Powell said BPL deployments would transform electric grids into “smart networks” that will improve the reliability, service and security of the nation's power supply. In addition, he noted the benefit BPL systems could provide to law enforcement by providing a potential broadband connection to public-safety officers at every electric pole.

Jay Birnbaum, vice president and general counsel of BPL vendor Current Technologies, said the ability of BPL networks to identify power outages immediately and allow network engineers to anticipate problems before they occur is “is so great, [BPL] will more than pay for itself.”

Most BPL deployments to date have been little more than trials of limited scale, but Birnbaum predicted that will change in the near future.

“The real reason people held out was because the technology wasn't ready, up to this point,” he said. “Now, the technology's ready.”

Indeed, significant technological advances in recent years have transformed BPL from a curiosity to a viable broadband alternative, according to Precursor CEO Scott Cleland. A longtime critic of the BPL business case, Cleland said he is now a believer in BPL technology, which eventually will allow power companies to realize incremental broadband revenues for less than $200 per user because “ninety-nine percent of what's needed is already built.”

The FCC order included changes to its Part 15 rules to address concerns from amateur radio that radiation leakage from BPL facilities and devices will disrupt their operations. But amateur radio operators remain skeptical that utility companies will establish systems that will allow BPL providers to remotely adjust or turn off operations when notified that they are causing interference.

David Patton, special assistant to the CEO for the American Radio Relay League, said members of his organization are concerned that electric utilities will drag their feet on compliance. An electric utility in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, took eight months to shut down a BPL operation that was causing interference with local hams, he said.

“They eventually shut it down, but only when the trial ended,” Patton said. “Based on past experience, we don't believe the utilities are going to be able to satisfy our complaints about interference problems.”

But these concerns were not enough to sway the commission. Powell called amateur radio operators “an important resource” and expressed hope that the rules the FCC has created will protect them, but he said obstructing the deployment of BPL is not an option.

“The potential for the American economy is too great — is too potentially groundbreaking — to sit idly by and allow any claim or any possible speculative fear to keep us from trying to drive this technology and drive America into the broadband future,” Powell said.

Editor's Note: This story originally published in the Sept. 27 issue of Telephony.