Power lines set to carry high-speed Internet

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.

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."

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."

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."

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