McAdams On: Broadband Over Power Lines
2/25/2011 9:49:31 AM
Long before there was a looming spectrum crises, there was broadband over
power lines. BPL promised digital subscriber line data rates through electrical
wall outlets. It was approved by the Federal Communications Commission seven
years ago and has since languished. Why, especially now that broadband has
become a priority such that the president is stumping for it?
The main reason is that BPL has few friends and determined enemies. There was
no promise of a new device market, and therefore no interest from the consumer
electronics industry. It represented competition to entrenched broadband
providers, the cable and telephone companies. Enthusiasm never materialized
from utilities, which probably cannot spell “competition,” much less perceive
of it. The FCC’s BPL rules became embroiled in challenges long before the
public ever got wind that broadband access could be had from a wall socket.
“FCC rules” and “embroiled” go together like “unleashing” and “spectrum,” the
premise upon which the administration’s National Broadband Plan rests.
Eschewing technological research for anecdotal economic assertions, the administration
has determined that 500 MHz of spectrum must be designated for wireless
broadband, or communist dogs will eat this country like a torn-open sack of
Iams. Never mind that less then one-third of the 547 MHz now designated for
wireless broadband is built out.
Those airwaves lay fallow because there is more spectrum in the market than
capital to develop it. New cell sites cost around $500,000 each, according to
one FCC white paper. The estimated cost of the administration’s ultimate goal
of 100 Mbps for every man, woman and child is $350 billion. A nationwide
wireless broadband network will take years and the unlikely cooperation of
competitive service providers to realize. The country is already wired for
electricity. BPL could be deployed yesterday.
In the absence of champions, BPL effectively has been killed by its opponents,
comprising some 700,000 ham radio licensees. The ham radio lobby, the American
Radio Relay League, went after BPL with a vengeance, claiming it caused
interference to their members’ operations. The FCC reaffirmed its rules in
2006, and the League sued. Two years later, a federal court ordered the
commission to cough up previously redacted documents. Those were released in
2009 along with a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that commenced
gathering dust. The ARRL in the meantime filed complaints against one of the
few BPL providers in the country, alleging interference in four municipalities.
Thus the regulatory saga continues, even as the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers this week published a third standard for the technology.
Here’s what IEEE had to say about its BPL operating protocol and
interoperability standard, No. 1901:
Networking products that fully comply with IEEE 1901 will deliver data rates in
excess of 500 Mbps in LAN applications. In first-mile/last-mile applications,
IEEE 1901-compliant devices will achieve ranges of up to 1,500 meters. The
technology specified by IEEE 1901 uses sophisticated modulation techniques to
transmit data over standard AC power lines of any voltage at transmission
frequencies of less than 100 MHz.
In the transportation sector, for example, the standard’s data rates and range
make it possible to deliver A/V entertainment to the seats of airplanes, trains
and other mass transit vehicles. Electric vehicles can download a new
entertainment playlist to the A/V system while the car is charging overnight.
In the home, [power-line communication] will complement wireless LANs by
providing a link through walls and other RF impediments as well as over
distances beyond the normal range of wireless networks. It will complement
wireless networks in hotels and other multistory buildings by carrying
multimedia data over the longer distances and allowing wireless to complete the
communication link over the last few meters.
What’s not to love if you’re one of the 240 million Internet users comprising
77.3 percent of the U.S. population? And why exactly is this technology being
held hostage by 0.2 percent of the population? How is it possible that after
nearly 10 years in development, BPL’s interference issues haven’t been fixed?
They have, but providers dismiss these resolutions, according to Ed Hare, manager
of the ARRL lab and an executive member of the IEEE working group that helped developed
the electromagnetic compatibility standard for BPL, No. 1775. That group
ultimately withdrew its support for 1775 over “
flaws” that allowed continued interference to ham operations.
“Putting radio signals onto power wiring is a recipe for interference, although
as has been demonstrated with help from ARRL, there are ways to implement this
technology so that its strong radio noise emissions do not cause widespread
interference problems,” Hare said. “The industry creates it own controversy by
not incorporating those techniques universally, and fiercely fighting against
having its most successful models turned into good regulations and standards.”
The federal government is hell bent on broadband, so why has it all but
abandoned BPL? The FCC’s final rules for the technology are pending. It’s hard
to imagine the commission not being able to appease 700,000 people for the sake
of 240 million, notwithstanding an agenda to hand the video market to the
wireless industry on a silver platter. If goal of the commission and the White
truly the provision of
nationwide broadband, BPL would be a major part of the discussion and the plan.
-- Deborah D. McAdams