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Broadband Over Power Lines: FCC Plugs In

WASHINGTON -- Calling it a historic moment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unanimously voted Wednesday to begin researching the use of existing electrical power lines to provide Internet and broadband services to homes and offices.

While broadband over power line (BPL) technology is in its infancy, the FCC thinks it could provide another way to deliver "last mile" broadband and provide an alternative to DSL and cable modem broadband services.

The technology, currently being tested in a dozen states, would allow consumers the freedom to access broadband services from any room in a house or office without adding or paying for additional connections by plugging a BPL device into an existing electrical outlet.

"Broadband over power line has the potential to provide consumers with a ubiquitous third broadband pipeline into the home," FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell said. "The development of multiple broadband-capable platforms - be it power lines, Wi-Fi, satellite, laser or licensed wireless - will transform the competitive broadband landscape and reap dramatic windfalls for American consumers and the economy."

The new FCC inquiry addresses two type of BPL: access and in-house. Access BPL uses medium voltage power lines to deliver broadband to homes and offices while in-house BPL uses existing electric utility wiring to network computers and printers, as well as smart devices, within a building. The FCC staff noted that the existing rules for unlicensed carrier current systems, which couple radio frequency energy to alternating current electrical wiring for the purpose of communications, have been successful.

However, carrier current systems operate with limited communications capabilities on frequencies below 2 MHz over a narrow spectrum width. With the advent of faster chip sets and the development of sophisticated modulation techniques have made new digital power line designs that use multiple carriers spread over a frequency ranges from 2-80 MHz. The new designs are capable of data transfer rates comparable to DSL and cable modems.

"Facilitating the development of new facilities-based platforms must be among our core goals," Powell said. "The current wireless industry illustrates the tremendous power of multiple facilities-based providers to foster innovation, promote ubiquity, increase competition and drive down prices. Wireless achieved these successes because the FCC employed a relatively light regulatory hand and licensed multiple providers in each market who built their own facilities to deliver value to consumers."

In its BPL inquiry, the FCC is seeking information, comment and technical data that includes the current state of high-speed BPL technology; the potential interference effects, if any, on authorized spectrum users; test results from BPL experimental sites; and the appropriate measurement procedure for testing emission characteristics for all types of carrier current systems.

"The true key to achieving Congress's objective of a deregulatory and pro-competitive framework lies in moving beyond duopoly towards a world where multiple facilities-based providers compete in the broadband arena," Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy said. "Innovations such as broadband over power line systems hold great promise in bringing us closer towards that goal."

Abernathy added, "Moreover, given the ubiquity of electric utilities, power line technology should help extend broadband services to rural and underserved areas."