Broadband by Power Lines Moves Forward

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission this week cleared the way for power companies to roll out broadband over power line service by approving a set of rules designed to limit interference to other radio frequency devices such as amateur radios.

The FCC's action on broadband over power lines, often called BPL, requires providers of the alternative to cable modem or DSL service to employ devices that can switch frequencies if they cause interference and that can be shut down remotely.

Commissioners, who praised BPL as a broadband competitor that will bring prices down and spur new services, also will require a national database of BPL installations for public safety agencies, amateur radio operators, and others concerned over potential interference.

Acknowledging Concerns

FCC Chairman Michael Powell acknowledges concerns from the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) and other ham radio operators, but he calls the FCC's adoption of the BPL rules a "historic day" for the future of U.S. broadband services. Powell calls amateur radio an "important resource" in the U.S. communication system and promises that the FCC will pay attention to interference issues going forward.

"We'll continue to be vigilant, and we've put the tools in place," he says. "But let me underscore that the potential for America and the American economy is too great, too enormous, too potentially groundbreaking to sit idly by and allow any claim of any possible technical fear to keep us from ... the drive into America's broadband future."

But Commissioner Michael Copps questions if the rules will keep the FCC as involved as it could be in refereeing interference complaints.

"I take the concerns of [the amateur radio] community very seriously, and believe that the FCC has an obligation to work hard to monitor, investigate, and take quick action where appropriate to resolve harmful interference," Copps says. "If an amateur radio user makes a complaint and an agreement between the BPL provider and the amateur radio user cannot be reached, the FCC should step in and resolve the matter."

Copps also criticizes other commissioners for not dealing with other issues, including 911 service, access for disabled people, and whether electricity customers should subsidize BPL roll outs in these rules. But he also says he supports the roll out of BPL as a new option for U.S. consumers.

"I think we all agree that a wide deployment of BPL would benefit broadband consumers," he says. "This is a market desperate for more competition."

Withholding Comment

An ARRL spokesperson says it is too early to comment on the FCC rules because the group has not yet seen detailed descriptions of the rules. "Some part of it looked very interesting, some parts we were unsure about," says Allen Pitts, media and public relations manager for ARRL.

ARRL continues to question BPL's effect on amateur radio signals, Pitts says. "We will always be concerned about the pollution of the ... spectrum," he says.

Officials from Current Communications Group, which has partnered with Cinergy to provide BPL in parts of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky, says the FCC decision may open up more power companies to using BPL. Among the benefits of BPL is that the devices monitor electrical blackouts, and power companies can pinpoint outages without relying on customers to call and complain.

Through a second joint venture with Cinergy, Current plans to deploy BPL to smaller municipal and cooperatively owned power companies covering 24 million customers across the U.S. At least four U.S. power companies are offering commercial-level BPL service to customers, and others are offering BPL on a test basis to customers.

Current has no problems with the FCC rules, says Jay Birnbaum, the company's vice president and general counsel. "We can peacefully coexist with all the users out there," he says.

The FCC rules should provide some assurance to power companies considering BPL, Birnbaum adds. Although many power companies take a conservative approach to offering new products, the FCC action on interference removes one obstacle, he says.

"Most utilities don't want to go first--it's not in their nature--but they don't want to go last," Birnbaum says.

The FCC rules establish so-called "excluded frequency bands" where BPL cannot operate because of potential interference with aircraft receivers. The rules also establish "exclusion zones" in locations close to sensitive operations such as Coast Guard or radio astronomy stations. BPL providers must also consult with public safety agencies, aeronautical stations, and other potentially affected government groups before rolling out BPL.

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