Manassas Journal Messenger | Manassas’ innovative Internet service set for change

Manassas put itself on the national map this year when it became the first city in the country to implement broadband over powerline Internet service citywide.

But the city and BPL franchisee Prospect Street Broadband mutually agreed recently to terminate their contract.

Manassas officials will open bids at a public meeting on Monday from prospective new franchisees.

“We just had differing needs,” said Manassas Utilities Director Allen Todd. “We had general differences on what we were expecting from a franchise and what they were expecting on what they wanted to do as a franchise.”

Although no single issue broke the deal, Todd said, an example of those differing needs included the city’s desire to have a local customer service center, and Prospect’s desire to do that work from afar.

Prospect Street Broadband could not be reached for comment.

The city granted Prospect Street Broadband a franchise last fall to provide high-speed Internet services to city residents through existing city power lines.

So far, 200 homes in Manassas use the $26.95 per month service, which allows subscribers to access the Internet by plugging a modem into any city outlet.

The Tudor Oaks and Battery Heights neighborhoods have been fully outfitted for the service, and the Wellington neighborhood is nearing completion, for a total of about 3,000 homes. The system should be fully operational citywide by the fall.

Current subscribers should receive the same service, and others can still subscribe, despite the contract termination. The system is checked a few times daily, and no disruption has occurred since Manassas and Prospect Street parted ways, Todd said.

“The existing users should not see any impact,” Todd said.

But this contract termination is just another example of “a BPL deployment decision gone wrong,” according to David Sumner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Radio Relay League.

Sumner and other shortwave radio advocates have kept a close watch on BPL in Manassas and BPL pilot sites across the country.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has joined these advocates in opposing the service, citing its possible interference with devices like ham radios, citizen’s band radios and some emergency communications.

FEMA, Sumner and others maintain that when the BPL service is transmitted across power lines, radiation from the lines may occur and render some radio uses unclear or inaudible.

Sumner and representatives from the Old Virginia Hams, a local amateur radio club, have agreed that Todd and others in the city have been working to address the interference noticed in Manassas.

But Sumner’s fears about BPL have not been allayed.

“I do find it troubling that the City of Manassas would file comments with the [Federal Communications Commission] that describe their BPL experience in glowing terms, and fail to mention the cancellation of the franchise, which occurred several weeks before the comments were filed,” he said.

Prospect Street hired a local company called Zplug to handle the marketing, accounting, billing and other aspects of running the service, and Zplug has continued to do so in the interim. A new franchisee can continue to use Zplug or choose a different company.

Another Prospect contractor,, had been providing the equipment, and will hold on to the current stock. The city utility department is responsible for installing and maintaining the equipment outside the home. The possible new franchisee, which will be responsible for running the system, will be discussed at the special City Council session at 7 p.m. Monday at the Police Department conference room.

The city receives 10.5 percent of the revenue from the BPL service, Todd said, and the city is only responsible for the small cost of installing the equipment. The income from BPL returns to the self-sufficient utilities department, and any extra revenue could possibly be used for other city purposes.

But Sumner said BPL won’t be a financially sound investment for the city, as some officials expect, especially with the city operating the system until a new franchisee can be found. The Manassas Utilities Department has temporarily shouldered the $140,000 cost for equipment already installed, but Todd said the new franchisee would reimburse the city for that amount.

“It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out that operating the system is costing a lot more than it is producing in revenue from paying customers as of the time the bid package was released,” Sumner said.

Staff writer Sari Krieger can be reached at (703) 369-6751.

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