BPL And The FCC: The Current Regulatory Environment For This New Technology

Date: Aug 23, 2004

Broadband over Power Line has captured the attention of the Federal Communications Commission and electric utilities across the country. Even though it is a nascent technology (actually, a "pre-start-up"), the Commission is fully primed to establish a regulatory framework for BPL within the next few months.

BPL has had limited commercial success in the U.S., with perhaps fewer than 1,000 total subscribers to date. Nevertheless, it remains one of the hottest new technologies in the entire world of telecommunications. Why? Because BPL promises to make broadband service available to the entire country via the nearest electric outlet. The public policy allure is irresistible.

After two years of scrutiny, the FCC is squarely behind BPL. Last February, the Commission made some very modest proposals (discussed below) to advance BPL as an unlicensed, secondary service. Under the secondary service rules, BPL may not cause interference to other operators and must accept any interference caused to its own operations.

If past is prologue, it is relatively safe to assume that the rules the Commission eventually adopts for BPL will be fairly close (virtually identical?) to those proposed last February. This is the Commission's general practice in rulemaking proceedings, especially when technical, engineering-type issues are involved -- and particularly when the Commission appears predisposed to reach a certain outcome, as it is here. We will know for sure in October or November of 2004, when the Commission is expected to adopt a Report and Order finalizing its BPL proceeding.

Consider, as background, the following two points regarding the FCC's handling of the BPL issue:

  • At the FCC these days, it is rare that the Chairman and the other four Commissioners agree on anything, let alone an important regulatory matter. Despite their differences on other issues, however, each Commissioner voted enthusiastically to move forward with the BPL proposals (only one Commissioner even raised any questions). This kind of consensus has not been seen at the FCC since everyone was uniformly shocked and appalled by Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl.
  • Compared to the rest of the business world, the FCC usually works in Dog Years. Seven years at the Commission equals one year in the real world. Moving from a set of proposals in February to a Report and Order establishing final rules in October/November might strike most of you as a reasonable, measured timetable, but in FCC-speak the proceeding is traveling at the speed of light. With BPL, the Commission has abandoned its typical plodding timeframe and has moved forward with surprising and almost unprecedented alacrity.

No question, the FCC desperately wants to promote the rapid development and deployment of BPL. Should there be any doubt in anyone's mind regarding the FCC's approach to BPL, the following quotes from FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell should remove it:

  • "I am optimistic and welcome the day when every electrical outlet will have the potential to offer high-speed broadband and a plethora of high-tech applications to all Americans."
  • "I can't imagine a better breakthrough for universal broadband service than if every power outlet in America was capable of providing broadband by just plugging something in."
  • "I think people have waited to see whether the government encourages or discourages [BPL], and I think we've encouraged it."
  • "The future is bright for powerline broadband."

The four other Commissioners are no less enthusiastic:

  • "we all have high hopes" (Commissioner Copps)
  • "[BPL offers] the potential to become a last-mile solution throughout the U.S." (Commissioner Martin)
  • "The FCC must do what it can to extend [BPL] to all Americans" (Commissioner Adelstein)
  • "[BPL is an] important step forward" (Commissioner Abernathy)

Why is the FCC so excited about BPL? Because BPL might turn out to be the "Ruby Slippers" of broadband. Imagine! The electric utility distribution system was just sitting there . . . and the whole time it could have been used to provide universal access to broadband! Who would have thunk it?

If BPL develops as the FCC hopes, it will serve as a platform to:

  • solve the last mile problem and extend broadband to unserved areas by taking advantage of electric distribution infrastructure already in place;
  • enhance broadband competition with DSL, cable modem and satellite providers where they exist;
  • improve the delivery of electric services (DSM, AMR, SCADA, PQM, etc.); and
  • advance Homeland Security interests by protecting the electric grid.

Waving this menu of potential public interest benefits before the FCC is akin to dragging a hunk of red meat in front of a hungry lion. The siren call of universal broadband service -- coupled with the possibility of improving the delivery of electric services and buttressing Homeland Security -- is as irresistible to the policymakers as is the red meat to the lion.

But with all this talk, what has the FCC really proposed to do about BPL? In the final analysis, not a whole lot:

  • Most of the same old "Part 15 Rules" will apply (meaning, primarily, that BPL may not cause interfere to others and must accept any interference caused to its own operations).
  • The power levels for BPL will stay the same as other Part 15 devices.
  • The radiated emission limits will not be increased.
  • There will be no conducted emission limits.

Yes, there will be new techniques and procedures for measuring compliance with the Commission's technical requirements. But in essence, BPL will be handled in the same manner as lower frequency powerline carrier operations have been handled under the FCC's rules for years.

As five or six thousand Amateur radio operators will be happy to point out, the main issue facing the FCC in the BPL proceeding is the prevention of interference to licensed operators. The Amateurs believe that the distribution of broadband via power lines will effectively turn the local electric grid into one huge radiating antenna, thereby causing significant harmful interference to their own licensed operations. BPL proponents, of course, disagree. At this point, so does the FCC. . . which is irritating the Amateurs to no end.

To deal with the interference issues, the Commission proposes a variety of mitigation requirements:

  • Manufacturers will be required to verify compliance with the technical requirements.
  • BPL operators will be required to reduce power on a dynamic or remote-controlled basis, to exclude specific frequencies or bands or to terminate operations if necessary to eliminate interference.
  • A database with basic information about the BPL system (e.g., location, modulation schemes and frequencies) will be available so that affected persons can identify possible sources of interference.

As the FCC staff has indicated, these are conservative and modest proposals. They are not revolutionary or earth shattering by any means. But as with other "Inside the Beltway" issues, much of the meaning of the FCC's BPL proceeding is in the symbolism and the signals. Here, the FCC's symbolism and signals are exceptionally strong.

Whether BPL will provide the long sought after "third wire" to the home (in addition to telephone and cable lines) remains unresolved, along with a host of other questions. Will interference be controllable? Will the various competing manufacturers unite on a standardized format for interoperability? Will BPL provide a practical solution in rural America -- where the cost of extra repeaters will need to be spread over fewer homes per mile? Will E911, CALEA, pole attachment, competition or cross-subsidization concerns raise other regulatory problems? And perhaps most importantly, will the widespread, commercial deployment of BPL really work in a congested radio environment?

While these and other questions remain unresolved, at least one thing is clear. If BPL does not materialize as a viable broadband platform, you can't blame the FCC.