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Radio operators OK rules on Net over power lines

For critics of power-line broadband access, new FCC rules mean "the glass is both half-full and half-empty."

Amateur radio operators expressed cautious optimism about new rules for the transmission of broadband Internet access over power lines.

The American Radio Relay League (ARRL), which has been the loudest critic against broadband over power lines, or BPL, on Friday said recent decisions on the technology by the Federal Communications Commission were a step in the right direction. Ham radio operators have complained that BPL services disrupt their own signals as well as those of public safety organizations.

In trying to address this issue, the FCC on Thursday outlined rules to prevent power-line access from disrupting important signals. These rules include barring BPL from certain frequencies commonly used by airplanes and excluding services from zones near Coast Guard and radio astronomy stations.

BPL providers must provide a public database of complaints from organizations whose signals were corrupted.

"We'll remain concerned about pollution interference," said ARRL spokesman Alan Pitts. "But the glass is both half-full and half-empty."

Thursday's decisions highlight the FCC's push to someday make BPL a broadband alternative to DSL (digital subscriber line) and cable modem technology, which are controlled by the Baby Bells and the cable industry, respectively. Energy companies such as Cinergy and Progress Energy have launched or tested BPL services in their areas of coverage. Internet service providers such as EarthLink and AT&T have joined some of these tests.

For now, BPL remains more fantasy than reality. The FCC has batted around the idea for many years, and other companies such as Nortel Networks have failed in trying to launch BPL services. Energy companies will have to shift their mentality as well, because the business of delivering broadband service is different than reading meters.

"Not only are (energy companies) deploying new technology, they're getting into a new business," said Yankee Group analyst Patrick Mahoney.

BPL technology provider Current Communications Group, which powers a joint venture with Cinergy in Cincinnati, lauded the FCC rules, which aim to both encourage the development of BPL and address technology concerns.

"I think the rules are a very good balance between giving protection to licensed radio systems while not restricting BPL technology," said Jay Birnbaum, a Current Communications spokesman.

Ham radio operators are waiting to get their hands on a more detailed report on the rules before giving a confident thumbs up. Until then, enthusiasts can only hope their concerns were solved.

"The devil is in the details," said ARRL's Pitts.