FCC Opens Inquiry for Broadband Over Power Lines
On April 23, 2003, the Federal Communications Commissions announced a formal Notice of Inquiry that seeks public comment on using existing electrical power lines to provide Internet and broadband services to homes and offices. Power line communications (“PLC”) technologies have been in development for many years. However, announcements over the past year regarding apparent technological developments and market trials, as well as aggressive promotion of Broadband Over Power Lines (“BPL”) by electric utility and equipment manufacturing sponsors (individually and through national trade associations like the Power Line Communications Association and United Powerline Council) at the FCC and state public services commissions, culminated in yesterday’s FCC announcement. All five commissioners were unanimous in support of the item, and all five issued separate statements touting the potential of the technology, as both a “third wire” for broadband services where DSL and cable modem services are available, and as a solution to providing broadband to rural areas where broadband services are currently not available. The Commission also noted that the proliferation of BPL networks could assist electric utilities to manage the electric grid more efficiently (through load monitoring and balancing, remote meter reading, outage notification, etc.) and add an extra element of network redundancy for homeland security.
The Inquiry, which will focus primarily on technical and interference issues, addresses two types of BPL: “Access” and “In-House.” “Access” BPL uses medium voltage power lines (1,000 to 40,000 volts) to carry broadband to user sites, while “In-House” BPL (commercially available today through plug-in units offered by, for example, Linksys and other companies) uses existing in-structure electric wiring to link network computers and peripherals in much the same manner as existing wireless (Wi-Fi) systems do. The Commission noted that while rules governing electrical carrier current systems are already in place (47 C.F.R. §§ 15.109 and 15.113), those rules may not be adequate to address high-capacity BPL systems. While we will know more details about the Inquiry once the Commission issues the full text (the FCC has, so far, issued a news release only), the Commission intends to seek comment on the following issues:
- Current state of high-speed BPL technology
- Potential interference on existing authorized spectrum users
- Test results from BPL experimental sites
- Appropriate measurement procedures for testing emission characteristics for all types of carrier current systems
- Changes that may be needed to Part 15 RF rules and the equipment approval process to foster BPL deployment and protect against interference
The FCC is unquestionably intrigued about the competitive prospects of BPL and appears at this point committed to ensuring that its policies and regulations do not impede BPL’s development.
Among electric utilities that have announced BPL developmental efforts and market trials are: PPL Telecom (“Pennsylvania Power & Light”); Ameren Corporation (Union Electric, Central Illinois Public Service, Central Illinois Lighting Company); American Electric Power (“AEP”); PEPCO/Conectiv; The Southern Company (Georgia Power, Gulf Power, Alabama Power, Mississippi Power and Savannah Electric); Consolidated Edison; Los Angeles Department of Water and Power; Progress Entergy; TXU (Texas Utilities); Cinergy; and City of Manassas, Virginia.
Significant outstanding questions clearly exist regarding both the technological and economic cases for BPL. Broadband providers in the cable and telecommunications industries, as well as existing spectrum users potentially affected by BPL emissions, will have a keen interest in this Inquiry and any subsequent rulemaking proceedings emerging from it. In addition to this FCC Inquiry, interested parties should monitor electric utilities’ promotional activities and formal submissions at state public service commissions concerning BPL.
The FCC’s news release and commissioners’ statements are available at www.fcc.gov. If you need additional information regarding this proceeding or BPL, or are interested in submitting or reviewing comments, please do not hesitate to contact us.