Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell visited Manassas Tuesday to view the city’s Broadband over Power Line technology, just days before the FCC will vote on BPL’s future.
Powell and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman Patrick Wood praised the technology for its communications and utility uses. The commissioners and others heard a presentation at the Manassas Utility building, and visited the Oaks of Wellington retirement community to see a resident using BPL and to hear him discuss its benefits.
Manassas became the first American locality to implement the technology city-wide last year. By plugging a modem into any city electrical outlet, subscribers can gain high-speed Internet access starting at $27 per month, approximately half of what cable and DSL providers charge.
Manassas City receives between 10 percent and 40 percent of the BPL subscription fees.
Approximately 900 residents have signed up for BPL, and the city has made it available to approximately 3,000 to 4,000 homes by adding a device to existing city electrical transformers. The entire city should be outfitted by January, said Manassas Utilities Department Director Allen Todd.
Short wave radio users have feared the technology would infringe on their radio frequencies, and render things like amateur radios, citizens’ band radios and international radio stations inaudible.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency also issued a statement opposing BPL for its potential to interfere with emergency communications.
The business and FCC representatives acknowledged Tuesday that BPL can cause interference.
BPL signal interferes with short wave radio by radiating off power lines.
Powell and industry representatives assured officials that the problem can be fixed, and both technologies can coexist by “notching,” or blocking certain frequencies.
“That’s one of the many viable engineering methods,” Powell said.
But notching doesn’t always work, said Amateur Radio Relay League Chief Executive Officer David Sumner.
“Notching is unfortunately one of those things that looks good on paper, but doesn’t work in practice, because they can’t notch it deeply enough to eliminate the interference,” Sumner said.
The FCC has been extensively testing interference issues at its Columbia, Md., lab, Powell said.
Power Line Communications Association President Alan R. Shark said he has worked with the ARRL on BPL issues. Both sides have agreed a lot of misinformation exists, Shark said.
But Sumner said that’s just not true, and that the ARRL has put out nothing but factual information about BPL.
Shark called the Manassas system superior, which Sumner also refutes.
Main.net, the company that provides some of the equipment to Manassas BPL franchisee Communication Technologies, was found by a British Broadcasting Company study in Scotland to cause more interference than other BPL technology companies.
But the technology has improved since the study was completed and continues to improve to include faster Internet access, according to Main.net Chief Executive Officer J. Mark Elliott.
BPL is currently governed under the FCC’s Part 15, or unlicensed rules, which disallow interference with any other licensed operations, including amateur radios.
The FCC will decide Thursday what rules to make for BPL, after receiving comment from a variety of parties.
“They’ll decide whether or not to adopt rules to facilitate BPL,” said FCC Spokesman Bruce Romano. “This would be our way of saying you have to avoid interference. We have concerns, too. That’s the point of this whole rule making process.”
The FCC officials shouldn’t have even appeared in Manassas on Tuesday, according to their own rules regarding influence seven days before the rule-making decision, Sumner said.
“I can’t pick up the phone and call Chairman Powell right now, we are prohibited by law from discussing (BPL),” Sumner said. “It’s just mind boggling that he would have done that, despite our pointing out Friday that he would be in violation of the Commission’s rules.”
But because Powell didn’t have any dialogue about specific BPL policies, he didn’t break the rules, said FCC Spokesman David H. Fiske.
ARRL’s attorney filed a formal complaint Tuesday afternoon with the Inspector General.
“Because Commission Chairman Powell intentionally participated in the BPL presentation by the City of Manassas, Virginia, and because he either knew or should have known that his participation in that presentation is in clear violation of Section 1.1203 of the Commission’s Rules …
“ARRL therefore respectfully requests that Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell recuse himself from any further participation in this proceeding, and that he not participate in the deliberations concerning this matter at the Open Meeting on October 14, 2004,” the complaint read.
Shark suggested the FCC work with the ARRL to create a formal dispute resolution process for BPL, so if interference does occur, an efficient process can exist to correct the problem.
Local amateur radio operators have already worked with Manassas utilities officials in correcting interference problems in Manassas, but that has largely been helped by much of Manassas’ power system existing underground, some say.
Both local amateur radio users and the utility officials have praised their current working relationship.
Oaks of Wellington resident Aaron Frishman showed the group Tuesday how he uses BPL in his apartment.
“I can plug it in like a microwave and it works,” Frishman said. “They had cable (modems), but this was so easy.”
Commissioner Wood couldn’t understand why American utilities have been slow to embrace this technology that can monitor power outages down to the individual home level, as well as provide security camera capabilities to local police departments, he said.
But Sumner understands why.
“The technology is not competitive with what the other broadband services will be doing two years from now, particularly wireless broadband,” Sumner said.
Sumner described how residents in Grand Haven, Mich. can use wireless Internet citywide, even from their boats on Lake Michigan.
“Anybody that doesn’t have a stake in BPL realizes this, that it’s simply a dead end.” Sumner said.