President George W. Bush last month appointed Commissioner Kevin Martin to succeed fellow Republican Michael Powell as FCC chairman. In doing so he might have unwittingly put the brakes on still-developing broadband over power line technologies that have raised the angst and ire of amateur radio operators nationwide.

Amateur radio operators long have expressed concern that radiation leakage stemming from widespread deployment of BPL would interfere with their transmissions. The hams also are concerned that the utilities won't act quickly enough to mitigate interference once complaints are brought to their attention, and that the commission has done little to address the situation.

Last month, the Amateur Radio Relay League filed a complaint with the FCC's Enforcement Bureau and its Office of Engineering and Technology citing ongoing BPL interference in Irving, Texas, and said it would renew a similar complaint affecting its members in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

ARRL CEO David Sumner reminded Martin in a letter last month that the FCC has yet to order a single BPL operation to shut down, “despite the failure of BPL system operators to resolve interference.”

“The ARRL and the nation's radio amateurs are anxious for a sign that we can expect this sorry situation to be corrected under your leadership,” Sumner said.

Powell, who ended his tenure as chairman on March 31, was an unabashed cheerleader for BPL, which he saw as the panacea for bringing high-speed data services to underserved areas, particularly rural areas, where infrastructure costs are so high that cable companies and wireline telephone companies can't justify the deployments. His enthusiasm for BPL largely drove public utilities — ultra-conservative organizations by nature — to take the leap, according to Nancy Kaplan, vice president of Adventis, a consultancy headquartered in Boston.

“Powell was remarkably supportive [of BPL],” Kaplan said. “Having that support made all the difference in terms of the utilities being willing to go after this. … They got burned by telecom in the past, so feeling that they really had somebody who was going to support them from a regulatory standpoint and make it easy for them, actually has made BPL move more quickly than it might have otherwise.”

When the FCC approved rules in October 2004 that cleared the way for widespread deployment of the technology — which uses the nation's power grid to deliver high-speed voice and data services — Powell said those concerns weren't enough to justify putting the breaks on BPL and that the commission's rules provided adequate protection for the hams.

“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 at the time.

Martin was less dismissive of those concerns. At the time of the order, Martin issued a statement that not only recognized amateur radio's concerns regarding BPL, but also pledged to do something about them. “I am confident that the commission will continue to monitor these concerns and will take steps, where needed, to address interference problems going forward,” Martin said.

Kaplan predicted that Martin will support BPL, but won't share Powell's zeal. Without such a champion going forward, BPL could fall well short of Powell's vision, some would say dream, for the nascent technology.

“BPL could end up being a small alternative that is used for a few things,” Kaplan said. “It has some value for the utilities themselves for their internal operations. I think it will move in that direction rather than becoming a large consumer option.”