Minor rule changes respond to court order, yet are unlikely to satisfy BPL opponents.

Regulating new technologies can be a slow business. So slow, in fact, that the regulatory process sometimes outlives the usefulness of the technology.

Take broadband-over-power-line (BPL), a technique for delivering Internet access over the same electric wires that come into the house to work the toaster. Early in the last decade, BPL was hailed as the long-awaited “third wire” that would provide real competition to the cable and phone companies for broadband Internet service.

The FCC initially put BPL on a fast track, at least by FCC standards. It released a Notice of Inquiry in April 2003, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in February 2004, and rules in October 2004 – just 18 months after the proceeding began. Trust us; this is blindingly fast. The FCC has not moved that quickly with a new technology in recent memory.

Not everybody liked BPL.

Some parties, led by the amateur radio community, were vehemently opposed. That is because some BPL systems use some of the same frequencies that amateur radio does, and some of the energy leaks off the power lines in the form of potentially interfering radio waves. Indeed, in recognition of that phenomenon, the new BPL rules featured unprecedented protections for amateur radio, including a requirement that BPL operators turn down the power on equipment that causes interference, and if necessary, turn it off completely. But that did not satisfy the amateurs. They claimed that a city-wide BPL system amounted to a city-sized antenna that would blanket the amateur bands with interference. BPL providers countered that interference, if any, came from isolated units of equipment, mounted on widely spaced power poles, that could be identified and adjusted if necessary.

The FCC received 15 petitions for reconsideration. Some, including those from BPL providers, sought relatively minor adjustments to the rules. But the amateurs asked the FCC to rescind the rules completely, pending further technical study.

The FCC put the petitions on a shelf and turned to other priorities. It took two years, until August 2006, to rule on reconsideration, and even then it made only minor adjustments to the rules. The decision bluntly refused the wholesale changes sought by the amateurs. To the contrary, one passage arguably allowed BPL to cause interference to amateur receivers mounted in cars, under certain conditions. 

The amateur radio association, ARRL, challenged the revised rules in court. It raised several arguments, among them a claim that the FCC could not lawfully permit an unlicensed service, such as BPL, to cause interference to a licensed service such as amateur radio.

The courts move at their own leisurely pace. It took almost another two years – until April 2008 – for a decision. ARRL lost on its main argument (i.e., that a potentially interfering signal from an unlicensed device violated the Communications Act). But ARRL prevailed on two subsidiary issues. The court ordered the FCC to publish, for public comment, certain passages in technical studies it had previously redacted; and it required the FCC to justify a certain mathematical formula used in BPL compliance testing.

Almost a year later, in July 2009, the FCC got around to requesting public comment on the matters sent back by the court. And now, in October 2011 – more than two years after that request – it has made further small adjustments to the technical rules, although it leaves unchanged the particular formula the court had questioned.

But during the eight and a half years of legal wrangling among the amateurs, the BPL providers, and the FCC, the rest of the world continued to evolve. Among other changes, BPL ceased to be the breakthrough Internet service that had made it so important as a policy matter. The technology is still used by utilities for their own internal purposes, such as meter reading and load management. But the promise of the Internet “third wire” has faded. The companies that used to offer BPL Internet service have mostly stopped. They are not saying why, but we have a suspicion. The initial versions of BPL provided speeds of up to about 2 megabits/second. That was entirely respectable in 2003, but a tad slow nowadays, when speeds of 5-20 megabits/second are the norm. As a result, the new BPL rules, while important to some utilities, will have almost no effect on the Internet-using public.

Nor are the recently issued rules necessarily the end of the road. The amateurs still do not have the levels of protection against BPL interference they have fought for all along, and we doubt they will give up now. Indeed, the president of ARRL, in an article titled, “FCC Tightens BPL Interference Rules – But Not By Enough,” predicts his organization will petition the FCC to reconsider the new rules.

And so the proceeding will lurch on for months and years to come, Zombie-like, increasingly irrelevant in the real world, yet unable to be stopped. And nobody in Washington seems the least bit surprised.