BPL BATTLEGROUND MOVES TO VIRGINIA
The war between amateur radio operators and broadband-over-powerline providers has a new skirmish line: the historic city of Manassas, Va., where local, state and even federal officials have welcomed Communication Technologies as the city’s BPL network provider and ARRL — formerly known as the American Radio Relay League — has asked the FCC to shut the system down.
COMTek owns and operates the Manassas BPL network, which provides ISP and Web-hosting services, while the city’s utility staff installs the necessary equipment and connections. The public/private partnership, which uses BPL technology built by Main.net, was positioned as broadband heaven for Manassas residents during a press conference announcing the citywide rollout in early October.
“Manassas has led the charge for BPL efforts, and we are pioneer in this area,” said Mayor Douglas Waldron.
In contrast, ARRL says Manassas is interference hell for amateur radio operators, and it’s not going to take it anymore.
“They’ve been working on it for 18 months, and they haven’t fixed the problem,” said David Sumner, ARRL’s CEO. “Instead they hold news conferences and media circuses touting the wonders of their system. The system is dirty.”
The system is up and running to about 700 subscribers and available to 12,500 other premises in the 10-square-mile city. Meanwhile, problems are being addressed, said Walter Adams, vice president of new technology at COMTek.
“We actively work with the Old Virginia hams, the local chapter of ARRL. When they bring things to our attention, we go out and investigate, and in some cases, it turns out not to be related to BPL. In some cases, it does turn out to be related to BPL,” Adams said.
When emissions escaped from a connection running up a wooden utility pole to a streetlight, “we took some remedial steps then went back out with the amateur radio folks, took a look at it and we both agreed it had been fixed,” he said.
The old Virginia Hams might have been happy in that instance, but overall they’re not pleased with the service, Sumner said.
“The group of amateurs they were working with became so frustrated … that they filed extensive complaints with the FCC, which we have consolidated and filed into our own complaint alleging inaction and ineffectiveness on the part of the BPL operator in resolving the ongoing interference in Manassas,” Sumner said.
As so often happens, this firefight is hinging on perception. On one side, BPL is positioned as a cheaper broadband option to telephone and cable offerings, a point made repeatedly during the press conference by elected and appointed officials such as Waldron, Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Karen Jackson, vice president of broadband programs for the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology. It also is seen as a tool that could improve the productivity and lives of American workers.
Dug in on the other side are the ham radio operators, who are dismissed by some as hobbyists, which doesn’t help their cause. Nevertheless, the hams fire back that their rights to clean spectrum are being trampled.
“We are a licensed radio service,” Sumner said. “We’re entitled to protection from harmful interference from unlicensed sources. HF radio has a very serious application and a very serious need, and to pollute that unique natural resource in order to provide a short-range broadband connection that can be provided by a number of alternative means … is just unconscionable,” Sumner said.
In a true emergency, however, there would be no power, and without power, BPL wouldn’t work, so it couldn’t interfere with high-frequency radios, said Adams, who also said that the hams’ role in emergency communications is being usurped in many cases by advanced satellite technologies.
Although both sides agree there is interference in Manassas, they disagree on how much, whether it’s harmful and whether it’s being resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.
“Manassas is probably one of the most measured and monitored BPL deployments in the U.S.,” Adams said. “We have the NTIA out there, the FCC out there, the Department of Defense out there, AT&T, the hams, the FBI, the National Security Administration. I think it would help both sides if there was a little more clarity about the complaint process and the mediation process, but I believe the FCC has been very clear that it is their intention to allow ample opportunity for the BPL operators, BPL manufacturers and amateur community to come together and define things for themselves.”
The complaint is crystal clear, Sumner said.
“If you put radio-frequency energy on an unshielded, unbalanced conductor, that radio frequency will radiate; it will cause interference to nearby radio receivers that are tuned to that frequency provided they’re relatively sensitive,” Sumner said. “The equipment that radio amateurs use is quite sensitive because we’re using it to receive signals that are typically propagated by ionospheric means, so they’re coming from long distances away, and they’re relatively weak.”
While the hams grind their teeth, the local first-responder community has no problem with the BPL system, Adams said. One demonstration of the technology, in fact, took place within the city’s public-safety area near police radios and there was no interference, he said.
“Police Chief John Skinner (who was unavailable to comment for this article) is commercial subscriber 0001 at his house on COMTek’s network. He’s a customer of ours as well as head of public safety there,” Adams said.
Sumner said Skinner’s position on BPL is irrelevant. What is relevant, he reiterated, is that BPL in Manassas leaks into the ham frequencies and interferes with amateur radio operators.
“We’re not opposed to BPL; what we’re opposed to is the interference,” he said. “We have a BPL system operating here at ARRL headquarters (in Newington, Conn.). It’s a Motorola system. Motorola took interference as a serious issue form the beginning of their system.”
Indeed, ARRL expressed optimism in June of this year that Motorola’s system, dubbed Powerline LV, would not generate interference harmful to amateur-radio operations. Where most BPL systems require the broadband traffic to travel solely through the electric grid, Powerline LV uses Motorola’s high-speed wireless Canopy system for backhaul to the electricity pole or pad-mounted transformer, from which the signal is sent to the house via the electrical wiring. This architecture design eliminates the need for the broadband signal to travel over the medium-voltage (MV) wires that link substations to transformers. Radiation from BPL-enabled MV wires is the primary source of interference for amateur-radio operators, according to ARRL.
Sumner, while acknowledging that the odds are stacked against ARRL in this battle, promised the fight would continue, on all levels.
“There are people within the federal government who recognize the problem. They’re basically being told to keep quiet,” he said. “We’re running up against the very short-sighted view that encouraging alternative broadband media somehow provides such great economic benefit that other considerations ought to be shunted aside. That’s a wrong view.”
Donny Jackson contributed to this story.