FCC Reaffirms Broadband-over-Power-Line Rules

New order ends long-running FCC proceeding – we think.

The FCC has denied ARRL’s request for reconsideration of the Broadband-over-Power-Line (BPL) rules.

We can hear you asking, “What, again?”

ARRL, the national association for Amateur Radio, has opposed BPL since its inception ten years ago. The FCC has ruled against ARRL and for BPL at every opportunity.

As you might expect from the name, BPL is a technology for moving broadband signals over electric power lines. Its operation entails putting radio-frequency signals on the overhead or underground wires that deliver electric service. Some of that energy leaks off the overhead wires, or connections to underground wires, in the form of radio waves. Depending on the BPL provider, some of the leaked energy may fall in the amateur radio bands. The amateurs claim this leakage has the potential to cause massive, city-wide interference of amateur communications. BPL providers counter that conditions the FCC has imposed on BPL, unprecedented elsewhere in the FCC rules, are more than adequate to protect amateur radio against any realistic risk of interference.

The FCC has consistently refused to impose the condition the amateur want most: a requirement that BPL providers “notch,” or turn down, the power by a factor of 300 in all of the amateur bands, all of the time.

ARRL demanded full-time notching in response to the FCC’s initial Notice of Inquiry on BPL, again in response to the subsequent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; and again in requesting reconsideration of the initial rules. Unsatisfied with the FCC’s response, ARRL took the FCC to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court sided with the FCC on the major issues, but told the FCC to take a second look at some of the technical findings. (More details here.) The FCC duly requested public comment on those technical findings. Again ARRL requested full-time notching. The FCC again refused, while making other adjustments to the rules. ARRL sought reconsideration of the modified rules, again with a request for full-time notching, which FCC again denied.

We detect just a trace of exasperation in the FCC’s language: “ARRL makes [its] arguments based on the same reasoning and facts that we considered and disposed of previously in the BPL First Order, the BPL First MO&O, and the BPL Second Order. We are, again, unpersuaded by its arguments …”

While the proceeding wound its way through the FCC, detoured through the federal courthouse, and then spent more years at the FCC, BPL itself underwent a major change. Originally the technology was touted as the “third wire” into the home for broadband Internet delivery (the other two being cable and telephone facilities). The initial BPL roll-outs indeed signed up substantial numbers of Internet customers. But in the time since, the utilities that carry BPL have stopped offering retail Internet service. They now use the technology solely for internal utility communications, such as meter reading and load management.

The FCC’s new order is the regulatory equivalent of driving a stake through the heart of ARRL – or at least, that part of the organization that has spent the last decade opposing BPL with something akin to religious fervor. ARRL’s only procedural option now is another trip to court. We don’t think that’s likely; but if ARRL does file a court appeal, we will let you know, and you will be reading about BPL in CommLawBlog for many more years to come.

(Blogmeister Alert to Readers: FH&H represents a client in this proceeding.)

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Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Gregg - April 19, 2013 8:50 AM

For decades, and almost a century now, Amateur radio has used analog modulation schemes on the low bands in the HF region. These modes are trivial to design hardware for, compared to using a digital encoded modulation scheme which might include forward error correction (FEC sends extra bits to recover from errors in the data).

As much as I am on the fence about this actually needing to happen, I am wondering if this might not be the straw that breaks the back of the old Analog radio emissions and finally forces everyone to consider SDR and much more resilient emission modes that could bring Amateur radio into a new era of innovation.

Kit Peters - April 19, 2013 11:15 AM

Gregg,

While it's true that analog modulation is a century-old technology, I take issue with the idea that analog radio transmissions are something that should be discarded in favor of digital modes.

One of the fundamental missions of the amateur radio service is to provide a means of communication when all other means have failed. In an extreme situation, a simple AM transmitter / receiver is going to be easier to maintain, use, and if necessary, construct, than a digital system. There is also the problem that below a certain signal-to-noise threshold, the error rate of a digital transmission is going to be too great for a receiver to decode it, while an analog transmission (and an operator with a good ear) will still be intelligible.

I'm not discounting digital modes here. Digital modes are a fascinating new area of amateur radio, and well worth exploring. But we shouldn't forget the role that analog modes still have to play.

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