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Power lines set to carry high-speed Internet

By Brad RosenbergContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / April 26, 2004

Power lines bring energy to homes all across America, but soon they could carry high-speed Internet service as well. On June 1, federal proposed rules for Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) go into effect. At that point, power companies can sell broadband services over power lines in every market in the United States.

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Several power companies from North Carolina to California have already launched trial programs in the past year, providing Internet service to customers through modems plugged into their electrical outlets. The companies are charging roughly $30 to $40 per month, a bit less than or equal to high-speed service from telephone and cable companies.

But ham-radio operators are deeply worried about the technology, arguing BPL causes enough radio interference to block out radio frequencies of fire and police departments, and other emergency services. "It's like listening to a symphony next to a jackhammer," complains Jim Micholis, a Wayne, Pa., ham radio operator who has witnessed several BPL tests.

Overseas, BPL tests were halted because of interference, they point out.

A new technical report, due to be released in a few weeks, will address the interference issue, insiders say, and offer evidence for both sides of the debate.

Most electronic devices create radio disturbance in some way, from fluorescent lights to cable Internet. But BPL stands out because it uses unshielded power lines to carry the Internet signal, says Jim Haynie, president of the American Radio Relay League. "In each and every instance where we have gone to the test sites and done our measurements and used our instruments, we have found that [BPL] will interfere ... to the point where we can't hear anything."

The Federal Communications Commission disputes that contention. It requested and got feedback from the radio league, and drafted BPL rules to meet its complaints.

"Our responsibility is to make sure that ... when some new use of the radio spectrum occurs, it doesn't create interference, and we have," says Ed Thomas, chief engineer for the FCC. Mr. Thomas maintains that the commission has yet to find any evidence of BPL interfering with nearby radios. "I'm willing to bet that there won't be a problem, and that [BPL] will be used ubiquitously," he says.

Proponents expect BPL to be a cheaper alternative for consumers who have relied on cable and telephone companies for high-speed Internet service.

"The BPL component is probably going to be a low-cost competitor in any market," says Allen Shark, president and CEO of the Power Lines Communications Association. "The prices that we're starting to see are less than $30 a month."

Another advantage power companies expect to have over its rivals: BPL will provide Internet service to areas where cable companies do not operate.

"Most rural areas have been underserved by rural providers," says Alex Pardo, director of Cinergy Ventures, a subdivision of the Cincinnati utility company Cinergy Corp. "Wherever there's a power line, [BPL] has the potential to get a data service to go to areas that have been underserved."