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Power lines set to carry high-speed Internet

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BPL will also encourage innovative technology, proponents say. "If every power plug in your house becomes a broadband connection, that means that almost anything you plug into the wall can connect to the Internet," says Thomas of the FCC. "That means that your refrigerator can have a meaningful conversation with the supermarket and say, 'Hi, I need milk.' Or you could call your house and say, 'I'm coming home in two hours, turn the air conditioner on.' It's only restricted by imagination."

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So far, ham operators have few allies - publicly, at least - to help them keep the FCC rules from going into effect. One reason is that, while police and other emergency-services could be affected, they have not tested it.

"We would be concerned if it did interfere with our communications, because those are critical, and involve lifesaving situations," says Steve Cohler, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. But while the organization "is aware of BPL," it does not know "the impact it would have on [its] communications capabilities."

The Federal Emergency Management Administration is also looking into BPL, but it has not yet come to a definite conclusion, says spokeswoman LeaAnne McBride.

Other nations, however, have already made up their mind.

"It's a brilliant idea, but if you give it a more technical, detailed look, it all falls apart," says Diethard Hansen, the external chairman of the advisory group on BPL to RegTP, Germany's FCC equivalent. "It suffers the enormous risk of uncontrolled interference to everyone."

During test trials of BPL in Britain and Japan, Mr. Hansen says, interference was so strong that they pulled the plug on BPL.

"In Manchester [England], they failed miserably in the shortwave frequency bands because the streetlights started working as antennas," he says. "In Japan, they had limited field trials in Osaka and Tokyo, and interference got out of control. They had to stop it." Ham-radio operators are concerned that BPL will cause the same problems in the US.

But proponents don't seem worried. "What was banned in Japan is very old technology," says Thomas.

In addition, Mr. Shark says that BPL didn't work in Europe because of an electrical grid that uses more voltage - and a political system overly influenced by would-be BPL competitors. "We can't learn as much from them."

Within a few weeks, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is expected to issue its report on the feasibility of BPL in the US. Critics charge that the FCC should have waited for the report before issuing its rules, and some even suggest that the White House pressured the agency to push forward the job- creating technology.

But such pressure is not necessarily bad, says Mike Gallagher, acting assistant secretary of commerce for communication and information at the NTIA. "It's our goal to create jobs and to create technology that can operate without interference. We can do both. There is pressure to do both because that's good management."