February 24, 2004 4:00 AM PST

Is broadband set to make power lines sing?

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Technical limitations have long frustrated attempts to deliver broadband Internet access over power lines, but the idea is once again sparking interest as its backers tout improvements.

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What's new:
Momentum is growing again for broadband over power line technology.

Bottom line:
Power lines could soon join coaxial cable, telephone lines and emerging "last mile" wireless technology as pipes to deliver data into homes.

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Earlier this month, the Federal Communications Commission proposed rules for utility companies that seek to offer Internet access through their electricity grids. The FCC hopes its rules for broadband over power line (BPL) will help jump-start the use of the grid network to deliver high-speed Net access to U.S. households, especially in hard-to-reach rural areas.

"One major objective of Chairman (Michael) Powell is to find ways to encourage broadband for the entire United States," said Ed Thomas, chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the FCC. "The more options that are available, and the more capabilities provided, and the more diverse the entry vehicles, the better off we are."

The proposed BPL rules are limited and notably do not address major policy issues affecting the electricity industry that are under the remit of local public utilities commissions. Still, broadband providers and power companies reacted positively to the FCC move, seeing it as a critical first step toward making BPL a reality.

Less than a week after the FCC released its proposal, Internet service provider EarthLink announced it would begin testing a broadband service using power lines leased from Progress Energy, an electricity company that serves the Carolinas and central Florida.

EarthLink's test, announced last Wednesday, involves 500 homes in Wake County, N.C., and could set a major precedent for the nascent BPL industry. In the trial, Progress Energy will deliver a packet-based broadband signal through its power lines and then broadcast the signal using Wi-Fi equipment from Amperion. Test customers access the network using wireless broadband routers installed in their homes.

"This might give us the ability to have coverage where DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable might not be," said Kevin Brand, a vice president of product management at EarthLink. "We're in the very early stages now, but we see the ability for the technology to evolve to be quite competitive with DSL and cable."

EarthLink will sell the service under its own brand and will charge people $19.95 for the first three months, then $39.95 a month after.

Phase two
Progress Energy representatives said they have tested the technology enough to know it works in a laboratory environment. The EarthLink trials will determine whether BPL works in practice.

"This is our second phase" for BPL, said Matt Oja, the director of emerging technologies at Progress Energy. "The first (question) was does it even work? Now we're marketing it over EarthLink, the retail provider."

The companies expect to make a final decision at the end of the year after completing the market test.

The idea of turning to power companies as broadband purveyors has been floating around for many years, including within the FCC. Power lines are an attractive broadband delivery system because they are already in place and reach more homes than either cable systems or telephone lines.

But technology limitations, policy disputes and expensive failures have consistently left BPL hanging. Power grids were designed for the efficient delivery of electricity and so bring together a vast network or transformers to feed a myriad outputs for household appliances.

To date, BPL has mostly lighted the road to failure. In 1997, Nortel Networks, a telecommunications equipment maker, teamed up with British energy company United Utilities and formed Nor.Web, with the goal of offering broadband over an electricity grid. The venture set up a test in Manchester, England, but soon discovered a snag in its technology: Neighboring lampposts were picking up data signals and rebroadcasting them as radio waves.

The technical problems and the expense of the venture eventually were too much to bear. Nor.Web shut its doors in 1999.

"I've always been skeptical about the extreme version of broadband over power line," said Joe Laszlo, an analyst at Jupiter Research. "I think there are huge problems with the scenario. There are several impediments along the way that make it harder to transmit data over transformers."

Most of the FCC's proposed rules outline a set of technical standards to measure the quality of a BPL broadband signal and to create a public database of available BPL services.

Perhaps the most important regulation addresses signal interference--BPL's biggest stumbling block. Amateur radio operators and some federal safety agencies have raised concerns about the effect of BPL on their communications signals. Without the right technology, it could create more static on lines that people are already using.

"Any time you put a signal on top of a metallic object such as a power line, it's going to radiate and I'm going to hear it," said Jim Heynie, president of the American Radio Relay League, a national amateur radio association. "The industry has not addressed the reception problem."

The FCC itself is trying to temper expectations for BPL. After the technical issues, it faces major regulatory hurdles.

Power companies are not regulated by the FCC, but by local public utilities commissions (PUCs). The FCC just creates rules to open the door for companies to offer broadband through their wires, but doesn't create rules for the wire itself. If power companies decide to push broadband aggressively into the household, a regulatory battle would likely ensue.

"There's very serious debate between the power companies and the local PUCs," the FCC's Thomas said. "We can foresee a situation where regulations could kill the infant business before it's born."

BPL proponents counter that the technology has improved to the point that communities can safely flip the switch. If the FCC's proposed rules take off, these people argue, there's a good possibility that power lines will begin delivering data into homes.

"The only knowledge it takes is to find a wall plug," Thomas said.

Putting BPL to the test
From an industry point of view, the FCC's decision could open up a new front in the escalating war to sell broadband to households across the country. Power lines would join coaxial cable, telephone lines and emerging "last mile" wireless technology as conduits for delivering data to homes.

The testing of reworked BPL service is already under way in a handful of communities, including Cincinnati, Allentown, Pa., and Manassas, Va.

Opening the broadband access market to a third industry with considerable clout could stir up an already bubbling pot. Cable companies currently lead providers of telephony-based DSL services in broadband market share in U.S. households. However, figures from the fourth quarter of 2003 show that cable's growth rate has begun to slow, relative to DSL, according to a study conducted by Leichtman Research Group.

Even so, DSL still has a long way to go to catch up. It accounts for 36 percent of the U.S. broadband market, with the remaining 64 percent served by cable. Much of DSL's recent gains stem from low-price plans designed to compete against a more expensive, though faster, cable service.

"The FCC wants to see a third broadband provider out there, and they want it to be facilities-based," said Brett Kilbourne, the director of regulatory services at the United Power Line Council, an organization of electric companies interested in BPL.

CNET News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.

4 comments

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interference: more than a nuisance
Most everyone is aware of the interference potentential to HF reception. This not only includes amateur radio and HF public safety services, but also the ability to receive international shortwave broadcast. With most local radio stations owned by a shocking few entities, listening to shortwave for news helps add perspective to current events.

If you want some idea on how bad BPL impacts HF reception, look at the following ARRL Website. In particular, look at some of the audio/video clips.

<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/HTML/plc/" target="_newWindow">http://www.arrl.org/tis/info/HTML/plc/</a>

Something else that is of concern to potential BPL users is that FCC part 15 devices (BPL included) have absolutely no legal recourse in dealing with interference that disturbes its own operation. Amateur radio operators running 1.5kw into high gain antenna can have effective radiated power levels execeeding 25KW. This could take down a sizeable area of BPL and there is nothing at all the BPL operators can do about it. Also, amateur radio operators, operating within FCC part 97, do have legal recourse in received interference issues.

In a nutshell, a complaint to the FCC by an amateur radio operator could possibly result in a shutdown order to the BPL operator. A complaint by the BPL operator to the FCC about interference from an amateur radio operator will result in no action.

Michael
kc5cqm
Posted by (1 comment )
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Kiss Ham Radio Disaster Communications Goodbye!
==&gt;NTIA STUDY DOCUMENTS RADIO INTERFERENCE FROM BPL

The first phase of a long-awaited broadband over power line (BPL) study the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released this week suggests it's possible to accommodate BPL technology while managing the interference risk. In a cover letter to FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, Acting NTIA Administrator Michael D. Gallagher pledged that the NTIA would "work with the Commission to establish a firm technical foundation for responsible deployment of BPL to protect critical federal communications systems." But, Gallagher added, "technical rules governing their deployment must address potential harmful interference to critical systems." Released April 27, NTIA Report 04-413 &lt;<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fccfilings/2004/bpl/index.html" target="_newWindow">http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/fccfilings/2004/bpl/index.html</a>&gt; analyzes 10 million BPL system measurements.

"Most studies have been oriented to determine whether interference will occur at the variously proposed limits," NTIA says in describing its study's approach. "In contrast, NTIA has oriented its study to find a solution that accommodates BPL systems while appropriately managing the risk of interference to radio systems." The NTIA acknowledges that BPL signals "unintentionally radiate" from power lines. But, the agency said,
"there is substantial disagreement as to the strength of the emissions and their potential for causing interference to licensed radio systems." The NTIA also said current FCC Part 15 measurement techniques may "significantly underestimate" peak BPL field strength.

The hefty, two-volume NTIA Phase 1 study looks at BPL systems using the HF and low-VHF spectrum from 1.7 to 80 MHz and "defines risks of interference from BPL systems to local radio reception" while assuming the systems comply with existing Part 15 rules. That spectrum, NTIA said, is home to some 59,000 federal frequency assignments. The study proposes protecting 41 frequencies of the "most sensitive and likely most severely affected federal systems."

ARRL CEO David Sumner, K1ZZ, said the NTIA study clearly demonstrates that BPL systems pollute the radio spectrum. "How can any responsible public official encourage the deployment of such systems," he asked, "and how can any investor seriously consider pouring money into such an obviously flawed technology?"

Among interference mitigation techniques, the NTIA study recommends reducing BPL device output power -- which it called "the single most effective method" of reducing interference potential -- and "shifting or notching" BPL frequencies. Others included differential-mode signal injection, absorbing filters, adopting a "one active device per frequency and area" rule and using a single point of control for each BPL service area.

Interference calculations by the NTIA engineers indicated that a BPL transmitter operating within Part 15 limits would significantly increase the noise floor for land-mobile receivers on frequencies below 30 MHz. The agency said it could be inferred from its calculations that "a vehicle-mounted HF receiver" operating in a residential neighborhood next to a BPL-energized line "may experience harmful interference" depending on the frequency, distance along the line from the BPL transmitter, the BPL transmitter's duty cycle and the number of BPL devices on the power line.

The NTIA study calculated that interference "is likely" to mobile stations in areas extending to 30 meters and to fixed stations in areas extending to 55 meters from a single BPL device and the power lines to which it's connected. With "low to moderate desired signal levels," the NTIA study continued, interference is likely at these receivers within areas extending to 75 meters for mobiles and 460 meters for fixed stations.

The NTIA says its Phase 2 study will "evaluate the effectiveness" of its Phase 1 recommendations and address potential interference via ionospheric propagation of BPL "from mature, large-scale" deployed BPL networks.
Posted by (1 comment )
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Interference isn't the only dark cloud over BPL
All ham radio operators here in the states, as well as in both Europe and Japan, where BPL as been banned, know about the interference it causes. The general public will not care.

Actually, fiber optic to every home makes more sense, and would be possible to do. So why the intense push by FCC? And why the big, nay, HUGE backpedal on the interference issue by NTIA (at the personal direction of Mr. Powell, no doubt)? Well, you could follow the money, but in this case I think it is the power. Not the electric power, mind you, but a darker form of energy is what concerns me.

The very interference that will plague every HF radio receiver for blocks around a BPL cell is the very data that is being transmitted to and from the computers in the cell, and to and from the network. He is a math equation for you. HF receiver + indiscriminant BPL radiation = 0 internet privacy. The FCC enforcement bureau has proven over and over that a search warrant is not required to listen in on signals you freely transmit. And if you use BPL, you will be using a shortwave transmitter. They'd still need a court order for a tap on optical fiber or copper cable. So, that wouldn't be as useful to government as BPL, would it?

I know I can't make you care your computer interfering with my radio. I always cared if I interfered with you, and tried to find ways to stop it. In my case, I was always successful helping my neighbors. But not all of you are very nice neighbors. Those "not so nice neighbors" are the ones the Government is most interested in monitoring. But, like the Patriot Act, everyone must live under it, even the just. So, hook up to BPL, neighbor, and enjoy. Just make sure you don't mess up and surf something "interesting". You won't be the only one looking at the screen.

Larry Smith
Texas
Posted by (1 comment )
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FCC approves BPL as Information Service like cable and DSL !!! *
WATCH:
<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://xrl.us/spnp" target="_newWindow">http://xrl.us/spnp</a>

~~~11/3/06 FCC approves Broadband Powerline as "Information Service" like DSL and CABLE

re: BPL Audio/video SECTION- forward to 30:25 minute area~~~
Posted by 200mbpsBPL (102 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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