Path to paradise or highway to hell?
Jim Haynie is making some noise in an attempt to keep noise from invading his constituents' favorite pastimes.
Haynie, president of the National Association for Amateur Radio, is spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill these days trying to convince Federal Communications Commission commissioners that the technology they find most promising to bridge the digital divide and create true competition of broadband services is fraught with interference problems.
Since issuing a notice of inquiry in April to study whether and how BPL [broadband over power lines] should be regulated, the commission has received more than 5,000 comments — the majority from angry amateur radio users fearing that BPL will interfere with their signals.
Yet the promise of BPL is something the FCC cannot ignore.
What its supporters propose is staggering: With more than 18 million miles of electrical lines strung or buried nationwide, the ability to reach virtually every business and home in the United States with transport speeds that are as much as four times faster than cable modems and DSL services, BPL has the potential to create what FCC Commissioner Kathleen Abernathy calls “broadband Nirvana.”
BPL “will not only bring broadband to previously unserved communities, but the introduction of a new broadband pipeline into the home will foster the kind of competitive marketplace that will eventually enable the commission to let go of the regulatory reigns,” Abernathy told attendees at the United Power Line Council's annual conference in September.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell also is a long-standing proponent of BPL as a means of accelerating broadband deployments nationwide, particularly in high-cost areas.
When the commission approved the April NOI, Powell announced such services should be available to U.S. customers later this year.
“I'm concerned about this,” said Haynie, who represents roughly 680,000 amateur radio users. “The FCC is supposed to be a regulatory agency, not a chamber of commerce.”
For Haynie the problem is simple: “Any time you put a radio signal on a naked wire, it's going to radiate … We're going to see spectrum pollution at a magnitude that makes air pollution pale in comparison.”
Alan Shark, president of the Power Line Communications Association, one of the major lobbying forces behind BPL, said ARRL's claims are unfounded.
“We're operating at a very low frequency. It's hard to imagine how our system would cause any more interference than a regular power line does today,” Shark explained.
The concept of broadband over power lines is not a new one. Early systems failed because developers couldn't figure out how to transfer an RF signal through an electric transformer.
Today, utilities such as Ameren in the Midwest and Southern Co. in the South are conducting field trials with improved technology that detours signals around electric transformers.
In general, broadband signals are carried by either fiber-optic or telephone lines and injected into the power grid onto medium-voltage wires. Electronic devices on the line catch the packets of data, re-amplify them and send them out again. A power line modem, which can be plugged into any outlet in the home, distributes the data signal to customer's computer.
But ARRL isn't the only group concerned about interference. The technology will take up a large chuck of spectrum-from the 1.7 MHz band to the 80 MHz band-and international, governmental and other RF stakeholders such as emergency communications users broadcasters are beginning to voice concern over the potential interference BPL could cause to incumbent operators in those bands.
The fear is that multiple broadband signals radiated from power lines will add together, making the many small signals into a very large broadband radiated signal emanating from every metropolitan area in the country.
The National Telecommunications & Information Administration, a division of the Commerce Department that advises the president on telecommunications policy, warned the FCC that, despite the promise BPL holds, the commission must protect incumbent users from BPL emissions that could cause RF interference.
The federal government itself is an extensive user of the 1.7 MHz to 80 MHz band, holding more than 18,000 frequency assignments. NTIA is launching its own modeling, analysis and measuring efforts for BPL, taking into consideration measurements already done throughout the world along with NTIA's own measurements of experimental BPL systems.
Recently, an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) subcommittee voiced its concern about the potential interference BPL could cause to broadcasters, and recommended the formation of a group representing all users of the radio spectrum “to coordinate development of limits to be imposed on the radiation from these systems.”
The Australian Communications Authority, citing BPL trials in the United States, Europe and Asia, (ACA) also has concluded that widespread use of BPL poses a potential risk to HF services.
Small-scale testing from the British Broadcasting Co. (BBC) showed BPL interfered with its broadcasting signals.
Still, it appears no one has a definitive answer to the interference question. Utilities are releasing very little public information regarding their own field studies, and ARRL's claims have yet to be scientifically verified.
The FCC hasn't collected enough data to perform any calculations.
Because the RF signals travel in short bursts over power lines, the signals won't be enough to accumulate and cause massive interference, said Shark.
“Our science shows there's not a problem from everything we've tested,” he said.
Shark added that the interference instances discovered to date are either isolated incidences or involve older, inferior technology.
Like the commissioners, Ed Thomas, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, sees BPL as a promising broadband solution, but he's careful to point out that ARRL's concerns will be taken seriously.
“Whatever rules we come up with are going to be a balance between the needs of that community and the benefit of allowing this to be deployed,” he said. “We will in fact evaluate the concerns and form our own independent opinion.”
If interference problems are discovered, one solution proposed is applying strict emission rules in parts of the band that most affects amateur radio users. “Notching out certain parts of the band makes the amateurs happy without ruining the economics of the broadband system,”said Thomas.
However, if federal government and local public-safety users in the 30 MHz to 50 MHz band are affected as well, notching out more parts of the band becomes impractical, say critics.
Moreover, NTIA has the power to halt any widespread commercial BPL deployments that interfere with critical federal government radio operations.
If BPL is permitted, ARRL and public safety representatives advocate its use only on shielded and filtered lines similar to those required by the cable television industry, which allows radio signals to coexist with cable signals on the same frequency.
But such a solution would severely cripple the economics of deploying BPL by adding considerable costs and run contrary to what the commission is trying to accomplish: cheap broadband for the masses.
“People remain bullish about BPL because they recognize that capex costs are less than the comparable costs of DSL or cable. That gives us a clear advantage,” said PLCA's Shark.
Still, the utility industry has yet to release any numbers regarding the economics of BPL.
Most utilities are operating in quiet mode, involved in technical trials to figure out the cost to set up services and how much potential customers are willing to pay, said Shark.
The next step for the FCC is to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking. Thomas said the commission is in a strong position to write a report and order based on the information it received from the NOI.
“Like any process that's negotiated, you try and thread the needle,” said Thomas regarding its negotiation process with the ARRL. “Anyone who wants to stop anything throws everything but the kitchen sink to say it's a terrible thing … Not everyone gets what they want, and everyone wants peace in our time.”
Voice of dissent
The following is a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission — specifically FCC Commissionser Kathleen Abernathy — regarding the characterization of broadband over powerlines as a “broadband Nirvana.”
Dear Commissioner Abernathy:
On behalf of the 155,000 members of the [American Radio Relay League] I must express strong objection to your characterization, in your Sept. 22 speech to the United PowerLine Council Annual Conference, of broadband-over-powerline technology as contributing to “broadband Nirvana.”
Nightmare is more like it.
The technical showings submitted by the ARRL and others in response to the Commission's Notice of Inquiry in ET Docket No. 03-104 clearly establish that BPL is a significant source of radio spectrum pollution.
It cannot be implemented without causing harmful interference to over-the-air radio services.
The BPL industry prefers to deny the evidence.
The FCC is required to work to a higher standard.
The radio spectrum is a precious natural resource. The properties of the ionosphere permit intercontinental communication. To squander that resource, simply to add a redundant, unnecessary, and relatively poorly performing “last mile” connection for consumers, is unconscionable.
I hope you will afford the ARRL an opportunity to explain our concerns to you in person at an early date.
Chief Executive Officer