Nightmare or nirvana? Those are the opposing views of the extremists in the ongoing debate over the future of broadband over power line (BPL). The doomsayers are predicting no end of problems, including uncontrollable interference to many other users of the radio spectrum. The optimists are claiming
that the technical problems have been addressed and BPL is ready for market. As with most politically charged arguments, the facts lie somewhere between the extreme positions.
In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently introduced new rules designed to encourage broadband competition while recognizing the concerns of other radio service users. This initiative will be good for both sides in the argument, since it will make the debate less abstract and it will allow the market to focus on finding practical solutions.
The attraction of BPL is three-fold. Firstly, it offers a way of serving communities in underserved areas, since almost everyone has electricity and, in theory, can therefore be served by BPL. Secondly, electric utilities would become serious facilities-based competitors to the telcos and cablecos. Finally, the utilities would be able to use BPL to operate operate their own electrical distribution systems.
However, BPL faces a number of challenges. The biggest right now is radio frequency interference, especially to amateur radio operators. But there are so many variables that it is difficult to generalize and suggest that all BPL systems will materially impact all other services in that part of the spectrum. For example, the threat posed by underground distribution systems is less than that posed by overhead distribution systems, due to the former having some shielding. The FCC’s new rules are an attempt to mitigate interference problems. The approach is one of managing problems when they arise. This is not a bad approach, given the uncertainties and the potential benefits of BPL’s success. However, there are risks.
For the proponents of BPL, there is the risk of moving too quickly and choosing the wrong technology or architecture. This could result in a system whose interference is unacceptable in its service territory.
This is a business risk common to all initiatives that involve leading edge technologies. Given that electricity distribution companies are monopolies, they will always be first-to-market with BPL in their service territory. Therefore, caution may be an affordable luxury.
WEB SURFERS VS HAM OPERATORS
For the opponents, there could be a more subtle risk. Consider the plight of amateur radio operators, if BPL obtains a foothold in some areas and becomes the great filler of the digital divide. How will politicians react if people in some other areas are unable to get BPL because of regulations that protect amateur radio enthusiasts? Eventually, such an issue would become political and decisions would be based on factors such as which service provides the greatest value to society.
In addition to the benefits mentioned above, BPL could provide service to small and medium sized businesses which cannot obtain Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service due to their distance from the central office, and are not served by cable. It could also lead to the development of a continuum of Wi-Fi hot spots, thereby making such services much more pervasive. It is therefore hoped that Industry Canada will follow a similar approach to that of the FCC, in an attempt to successfully jump-start a third major player in the Canadian broadband services marketplace.