With some consideration in mind for short wave radio users, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules Thursday for Broadband over Power Line.
Manassas became the first American locality to implement the technology citywide 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 and 40 percent of the revenue from BPL subscriptions.
Approximately 900 Manassas residents have signed up for BPL, and the city has made it available to approximately 3,000 to 4,000 houses so far, using existing city power lines. BPL should be available to the entire city by January, said Manassas Utilities Department Director Allen Todd.
At the rule-making meeting Thursday, FCC officials described BPL as a way to create competition in the broadband industry. BPL technology can also help localities monitor existing power grids, and increase homeland security by allowing police cameras to work in lamp posts, officials said.
FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell praised BPL extensively. Powell and other officials visited Manassas on Tuesday for a BPL presentation.
Powell noted how a Manassas resident described the ease of plugging a BPL modem into an outlet, just like other appliances.
“That’s amazing, and the innovation potential is great,” Powell said.
But amateur radio users have been particularly worried about interference from BPL that could render their radios inaudible.
Other shortwave uses affected by BPL include citizens band radios, some emergency radios, overseas radios stations.
“It was astonishing to hear the FCC chairman lavish such superlatives on BPL,” said David Sumner, Amateur Radio Relay League chief executive officer. “For consumers, virtually every advantage he cited is even more true for wireless broadband, which already exists as the ‘third way’ to deliver broadband service to consumers.”
The ARRL has also been “irrevocably harmed” by Powell’s visit to Manassas, which it claims violated FCC’s own obligations for disclosure of new information, Sumner said.
FCC’s General Council argued in a letter provided to the Manassas Journal Messenger/Potomac News that Powell did not violate the rules governing discussions allowable seven days before this rule-making meeting.
Local amateur or “ham” radio users wanted to attend Tuesday’s presentation in Manassas, they said. George Tarnovsky, an outspoken member of the Ole Virginia Hams amateur radio club and a BPL opponent, said he was specifically unwelcomed.
For the most part, the Manassas Utilities Department and OVH have praised each other in working together on BPL issues. But the hams are still concerned.
“BPL deployment here in Manassas has proven it’s potential to interfere with all communications from 4 to 22 Mhz,” OVH wrote in a letter to the press. “We have spent countless hours monitoring and categorizing the BPL noise here in Manassas. Unfortunately there is a smoke screen effort in place by the BPL consortium to allow its move forward.”
Sumner appreciated FCC Commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein’s mention of amateur radio users and concern for their protection, he said.
The commissioners also worried about interference with emergency radio uses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency opposed BPL, for fear it would interfere with their communications.
“These are important services we need to protect from interference,” Adelstein said.
FCC officials maintained that short wave radio can be protected by notching, or blocking certain frequencies from BPL. The rules adopted Thursday include conditions for BPL that have been described as more stringent than those created for other technologies governed under the FCC’s Part 15, or unlicensed technology rules.
These conditions mandate that BPL providers must avoid frequencies used by aeronautical and aircraft receivers communications. The rules also establish consultation requirements with public safety agencies, federal government sensitive stations and aeronautical stations.
Protections for non-government and non-emergency wavelengths, such as those used by amateur radio users, are less stringent, but are reasonable, according to FCC officials.
“The interference protections that are being added to the rules for certain federal and aeronautical radio users illustrate the magnitude of the interference problem,” Sumner said. “By not adopting similar protections specifically for radio amateurs, the FCC is exposing itself to an enforcement workload that it is not equipped to handle.”
The commissioners generally agreed the two technologies can co-exist. Copps voted to dissent in part and approve in part on the rules vote.
“I remain concerned with the question of interference to amateur radio users,” Copps said. “If an amateur radio user makes a complaint and agreement between the BPL provider can not be reached, the FCC should step in and resolve the matter. These cases must not take years to resolve.”
Notching should correct any problems, said Ed Thomas, from the FCC office of engineering and technology. But notching doesn’t always work, Sumner said.
The city of Manassas, and other localities with existing systems, will have a grace period to adjust to the new rules, Thomas said.
That shouldn’t be a problem for Manassas, Todd said.
“The issues that came up that required notching, we were able to successfully notch those locations,” Todd said.
Some, including Adelstein, have said certain BPL systems work better than others.
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.
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chair Patrick Wood also visited Manassas on Tuesday to see the BPL demonstration, and praised the technology as a way to monitor power outages within seconds on the individual home level.
“I was trying to probe what it was in the (Manassas) City psyche that said we want to do this,” Wood said after Thursday’s FCC meeting.
Wood chalked it up to creativity and a concern for residents among Manassas officials.