McAdams On: Broadband Over Power Lines

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 “technical 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 House is truly the provision of nationwide broadband, BPL would be a major part of the discussion and the plan.
-- Deborah D. McAdams