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FCC to clarify rules for powerline broadband

Commission expected to classify BPL as it has DSL and cable modem, a move that should help spur further investment in the technology.

During its monthly meeting Friday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to clarify any regulatory uncertainty that may surround broadband over powerline technology.

At the meeting, the commission will vote on how to classify the emerging technology, which allows electric companies to provide high-speed Internet access over the power grid. The commission will likely classify BPL as an interstate information service, rather than as a telecommunications service, thus putting it on a level playing field with DSL and cable modem services.

Because information services aren't regulated as heavily as telecommunications services, classifying BPL service as an information service is a positive step. Last year, the FCC changed the classification of DSL services to information services after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that cable modem services should be classified as information services.

Brett Kilbourne, counsel and director of regulatory services for the United Power Line Council, which represents the BPL industry, said getting the classification from the FCC could remove another hurdle for getting the services widely deployed.

"We just wanted to remove any doubt that a utility company might have when they're preparing to roll out a BPL service," he said. "As the technology gets rolled out into the mass market, it is important to get clarification, especially for the investor-owned power companies, which control about 90 percent of the power in the U.S., but tend to be more conservative."

The FCC has been a big supporter of BPL for the last couple of years, believing it could become a third broadband alternative to DSL and cable modem services. The commission believes BPL could be a tremendous help in lowering prices for consumers and getting rural parts of America connected to broadband services.

In August, the FCC unanimously adopted an order designed to reaffirm and build on the first set of rules it issued for the technology in 2004. In these original guidelines, the commission listed several ways to prevent BPL from interfering with radio signals that rely on nearby frequencies, such as those commonly used by aviation and in zones near U.S. Coast Guard and radio astronomy stations.

Even though interest in BPL has been around for years, interference issues and technical limitations have made it a tantalizing near-miss for the tech industry. But in the last couple of years, commercial deployments have grown. Last year, Current Communications Group, a service provider that specializes in BPL and TXU Electric Delivery, the largest electric company in Texas, announced that it is building a network to serve roughly 2 million homes and businesses in northern Texas.

California regulators have also given the green light to test BPL services in their state. The investment community is also getting more interested. Last year, BPL provider Current Communications Group, received more than $200 million in financial backing from major corporate players such as Google, the Goldman Sachs Group, General Electric and EarthLink.