nce last we visited the issue of transmitting the Internet over power lines (the big electric company kind, not the wires in your walls), the Federal Communications Commission, lapdog to the monied interests, has issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the second step in making broadband over power lines (BPL) a reality.
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In a rare moment of governmental clarity, an NPRM is precisely what it seems to be: Advance notice of how the FCC is going to give zillionaires what they want at the expense of us ordinary folks. The NPRM follows a Notice of Inquiry that was issued last April and generated more than 5,000 comments, many from angry ham radio operators.
HERE'S THE DEAL: BPL is a technology that uses radio waves, transmitted over power lines, to provide broadband Internet or other data connectivity. The problem with BPL is simple physics: Radio waves like to fly off into space. When they do, interference results. In order to get broadband speeds, BPL uses a large number of frequencies, some of which are capable of traveling literally around the world even on the small transmitter power that BPL systems use.
BPL would operate as an unlicensed radio service under Part 15 of the FCC's rules. This is the same section that allows most of the unlicensed devices used in home and business. All of these devices are supposed to operate in such a way that they don't interfere with licensed radio services.
Among the leaders in the fight against BPL is the amateur radio community. Ham radio operators, including myself, see BPL as a potentially huge source of communications-disrupting interference. The hams have found an ally in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the Commerce Department agency charged with coordinating the federal government's own radio systems.
The NTIA has warned the FCC that, unless it's carefully regulated, BPL could cause significant interference to government users of shortwave radio frequencies. The NTIA is conducting its own BPL study, though it has not yet been released. Another study, by ARRL, the national organization for amateur radio, is also due to be released in the next few weeks to months.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE about all this? Because BPL could have a negative impact on the entire world of radio communication. Remember what I said earlier about the radio waves flying off into space? Even the low-power signals BPL would employ can, under the right conditions, travel around the globe. That means BPL systems in the United States could cause interference in places far removed from whatever benefit BPL is supposed to provide.
Interference is pollution and, once it starts, can prove impossible to stop. If not properly managed, BPL has the potential to ruin large portions of the shortwave radio spectrum. Like old-growth forests, radio spectrum is precious and for much the same reason: They just aren't making any more of it. What we have needs to be wisely managed for the greatest public benefit.
BPL needs to be watched carefully to make sure a technology we don't really need--isn't there enough broadband out there already?--doesn't cause problems we'll never be able to resolve.
If you're interested in this issue, please read some of the documents available and make your feelings known to the FCC.