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FCC pushes for broadband over power lines

Regulators say they're trying to address interference concerns while promoting an alternative to cable, DSL.

WASHINGTON--Federal regulators renewed on Thursday their push for a wider rollout of what has been hailed as a viable "third pipe" for the many areas where broadband choices have been limited to DSL or cable modems.

If broadband over power lines, or BPL, takes off, then more Americans, particularly in rural and underserved areas, will be able to plug into high-speed Internet access, and markets dominated by cable and DSL (digital subscriber line) should be forced to lower consumers' bills, members of the Federal Communications Commission said at their monthly meeting here.

The FCC unanimously adopted an order designed to reaffirm and build on the first set of rules issued for the technology in 2004, which had drawn a number of reservations from both inside and outside the industry. The original guidelines focused on preventing the nascent Internet service from causing harmful interference with radio signals that rely on nearby frequencies, such as those commonly used in aviation and in zones near U.S. Coast Guard and radio astronomy stations.

"It is my hope that our rules will allow BPL systems to flourish," FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said Thursday.

BPL service in action

The latest order's full text was not immediately released, but a summary version (click here for PDF) outlines a handful of clarifications. The regulators, for example, shot down requests by the amateur radio community, TV broadcasters and the aeronautical industry to exclude or prohibit BPL offerings at certain frequencies, saying they didn't have enough evidence of interference to warrant the extra limitations.

The United Power Line Council, which represents the BPL industry, applauded the action. "The FCC generally affirmed its rules, which in itself is a victory for the industry," said Brett Kilbourne, the organization's director of regulatory affairs, although he admitted that BPL companies still haven't gotten everything they want from regulators.

Though interest in shuttling Internet access over the electrical grid began years ago, only about 50 such systems currently exist in the United States, and the vast majority remain in the developmental or experimental phase. That's in part because the idea has encountered resistance from amateur radio operators, who complain that BPL could disrupt their systems and those of public safety organizations if deployed without limits.

But the push for commercializing the technology appears to be growing. Late last year, two companies said they plan to offer BPL to 2 million homes and businesses in northern Texas in the near future, and California regulators this spring gave the go-ahead to test the service in that state.

Investors also have perked up. BPL provider Current Communications Group, which already offers service to consumers in Cincinnati, has received more than $200 million in financial backing from major corporate players such as Google, the Goldman Sachs Group, General Electric and EarthLink.

"Generally speaking, we're pleased with what the commission did again," Jay Birnbaum, Current's vice president and general counsel, said of the FCC's action on Thursday. "They're trying to do the difficult job of balancing the interests."

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said he believed the order strikes an "acceptable balance" but warned that the FCC would continue to keep a close eye on complaints about interference. "This applies with special force to amateur radio operators whose skills and dedication once again proved so valuable in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," he said.

In that vein, the latest order sticks to earlier limits on emissions by BPL equipment. It also continues to require certification of such gadgets, and keeps in place a requirement that BPL providers enter information about their offerings in a public database at least 30 days before deploying their goods. The BPL industry had requested elimination of the prenotification requirement, saying it posed a competitive disadvantage. But the FCC ruled it was critical for alerting public safety officials, amateur radio operators and others who share the spectrum of what's potentially headed their way.

The conditions should be sufficient for now, though TV broadcasters would have preferred to see a complete prohibition on BPL operations in their spectrum, said David Donovan, president of the Association for Maximum Service Television.

"To the extent any situations do arise, we're hopeful we can work with the commission and the BPL providers to make sure that Americans retain interference-free access to over-the-air television," he said. At the moment, both Donovan and FCC rule makers acknowledged, no BPL equipment operates in the frequency range of concern to the TV industry.

Four of the five FCC commissioners said they'd had a chance to see BPL equipment in action during a recent field trip to Texas. Republican Commissioner Deborah Tate said she has been continually "struck by the impact this technology could have on reaching our goal of ubiquitous broadband deployment in the United States."