The wonderful thing about being in a technology business is that things are never static. New and exciting developments are always emerging, and often they present both challenges and opportunities. As a service to our readers, this month we discuss two of the more significant items currently before the Federal Communications Commission.

Broadband over power lines

The FCC has released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in the Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL) proceeding. The FCC is excited about the possibility that BPL will bring high-speed Internet access to areas where cable modem and digital subscriber line (DSL) services are not available, as well as reduce the cost of high-speed access where cable modem and DSL service is available.

The biggest issue in the proceeding would initially appear to be whether the widespread use of BPL would cause interference that would be harmful to amateur and other radio operations. The amateur community, which consists of many 800 MHz radio dealers presently engulfed in another interference mess, is rightfully skeptical about utility industry claims that those fears are unfounded.

In the shadows, however, are several other issues concerning BPL that also merit the attention of the land mobile radio community. The most important issue is the possibility that BPL could be used by a utility to compete with independent entrepreneurs seeking to build out Wi-Fi systems. While competition generally is a good thing, the ability of a municipality to provide a competitive broadband service for consumers is a very thorny issue.

It's wonderful for municipalities that currently have no broadband service or whose residents are victims of price gouging because there is no competition to be able to offer their residents an alternative. However, I've already seen at least one case where a municipality that had decided to get into the broadband biz suddenly determined it was necessary to force a private land owner to remove a tower that is being used to provide Wi-Fi service, under the guise that the roughly eight-year-old tower hadn't been zoned properly.

Note that the municipality didn't show an interest in the tower until the municipality became a broadband competitor. You can extrapolate this case to many other situations where a municipality deploys Wi-Fi, BPL or a mesh network for their internal needs, but counts on commercial revenue to justify the cost.

It is important that the FCC recognize that there are other alternatives in rural communities, and that local, innovative entrepreneurs should not have their investments cannibalized by a subsidized utility or municipality.

Voice over Internet Protocol

VoIP certainly is the hottest topic at the FCC these days (other than Janet Jackson, of course). The FCC has taken two significant actions in this area that may warrant your attention.

The FCC has decided that Pulver.com's Free World Dialup (FWD) service is neither telecommunications nor a telecommunications service. FWD subscribers connect a special telephone to a computer to place voice calls over the Internet. However, the other party must also be on the Net and a FWD subscriber. Because the call never leaves the Internet, it doesn't touch the public switched telephone network (PSTN).

With its ruling, the FCC is keeping FWD from being regulated by state utility commissions and absolving it from the myriad regulations that telephone companies have to abide by, including the provisioning of 911 emergency communications services. However, the FCC did say that FWD was an “unregulated information service,” leaving the door open for the imposition of some regulations at some point in the future.

Alan Tilles is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker, and can be reached at atilles@srgpe.com.