May 26, 2004
FCC Set to End Our Right to Listen to Foreign Broadcasts . . . and More
BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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The Bush Administration’s love of all things that pollute is about to take it’s toll on the radio spectrum as the FCC is poised to open the floodgates of broadband transmission via existing power lines. And although I, as a shortwave radio listener, am fearful of losing my access to foreign broadcasts, the ramifications of broadband-over-powerline extend into many other areas of the radio spectrum and communications industries.
What is BPL?
BPL is a technology that allows the transmission of "broadband over power lines." However, the problem is not just in the overhead power lines. If a home user plugs into a BPL modem, then that home can become a source of BPL interference radiation spreading throughout the neighborhood. At this point it seems likely that the system will cause interference that it will destroy the SW bands, ham bands, mobile, emergency bands, and AM radio. DSL lines have already been affected in test areas. There is concern that even military and aircraft communications will be subject to crippling interference.
Once billed as a way to reach inaccessible areas, the fear now is that companies will quickly roll out the technology in big cities within one to two years. President Bush, in a speech on April 21, declared his intent to "clear the underbrush of regulation" and push BPL ahead quickly with BPL across the country by 2007 (excerpt below) 2. The BPL industry is already looking for taxpayer subsidies. (See article #4, below, report on the May 19, 2004 hearing of the Subcommittee on Telecommunications & the Internet.)
Anything in the bands from 2mhz to 80mhz can be affected. Supposedly, companies are able to "notch out" certain bands but this assertion has been questioned. Home filters, if any are effective, have not been mandated. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department (http://www.ntia.doc.gov/) has issued a report with warnings about BPL. BPL has been shut down in Japan, UK, Switzerland, Austria, Netherlands, and other countries. But not here in the USA because BPL is viewed, in many circles, as a payoff to the electric power transmission industry.
The Political Stage
In a February 24, 2004 article at Zdnet.com/AnchorDesk, a leading technology/business site, Executive Editor David Coursey states:
Out in the land of the "ordinary folks" Steve Waldee, retired broadcast consultant, AM-FM transmitter engineer, and audio specialist and a shortwave listener since the early 1950’s, offers excellent, easy-to-understand explanations of the impact of BPL as well as insight into the imprecise language of the FCC proposal which offers very little assurance of protection. As for the politics of the situation, he writes in a May 21, 2004 addendum to his page "Our ‘Take’ on BPL: Broadband Internet over Powerlines" (http://www.home.earthlink.net/~srw-swling/bpl.htm):
Why indeed??? And what about AM radio and all those Clear Channel stations? Why is the electrical power transmission industry the most favored of all by the Bush Administration? Is this Enron revisited?
The Current Battle
As mentioned above, Quest has already filed complaints about BPL affecting their underground DSL.
Ham operators been fighting via their organization, the ARRL (American Radio Relay League). Their specific concerns extend beyond interference. They also fear that if BPL companies demand more frequencies for transmission, the FCC will take them from the ham frequencies. Another fear is that ham operators, operating within their legal limits, will interfere with BPL users, and that the hams will be the ones to lose. The BPL industry and FCC claim that no hams have been bothered in the various test areas. But the ARRL has found that in these small, selected test areas, NO hams actually lived in the affected areas!
Shortwave listeners will have the toughest time. While the ARRL has mentioned shortwave at times, they are focused on their own concerns. Since shortwave is by nature "free to the masses" without any central organization, they have no lobbying clout. The FCC proposals stipulate that the burden of proving that BPL is causing a problem is on the complainant...so, guess who wins if a shortwave listener suddenly turns on his/her radio and no longer can listen to the BBC?
Polluting the World’s Radio Communications
Both Coursey and Waldee discuss the impact of BPL in the United States on world radio communications. BPL can disrupt foreign broadcasts all over the globe. Coursey in his AnchorDesk piece writes:
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
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The ARRL web page devoted to BPL is crammed with information and news
stories about BPL. Explore this whole page---industry links, reports,
tests, and news stories about the test areas here in the US. This page
will offer the reader a clear understanding of the ramifications of BPL.
This page also has a section of Audio examples of the type of interference
BPL causes from the US and overseas tests. I’ve included one easy to
use link to audio studies in Japan (uses RealPlayer). The samples are
taken from tests run in apartments and houses. Listening to these audio
examples are truly "ear-opening."
The NTIA (National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Dept. of Commerce) and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications & the Internet
The NTIA is the President’s principal advisor on telecom and information policy. Its warnings about BLP are apparently being ignored, which is par for the course.
The last day for comment is June 1.
Subcommittee on Telecommunications & the Internet
Fred Upton, Michigan
Michael Bilirakis, Florida
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on the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband-Over-Powerline
Policy, Etón Corporation,
November 14, 2003
This is the html version of the file http://www.grundigradio.com/bpl/FCCBPLcomments.pdf
Recently the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began the process of changing the regulations that govern radio frequency interference. These changes are aimed at paving the way for the FCC to introduce a new technology known as broadband-over-powerline (BPL).
According to the FCC, BPL would bring broadband to "previously unserved communities" and be the catalyst for a "robustly competitive and diversified marketplace" that would lead to a "broadband Nirvana" in America.* While its proposal may be well intentioned, the FCC’s support of this emerging technology threatens the existence of an established technology – Shortwave radio. Shortwave radio technology, though not as cutting-edge and as commercialized as BPL, is important to America because it represents our most basic freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
technology is based on using 2-80 MHz of the radio frequency spectrum
to transmit data over existing powerlines. According to the latest research
done by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the American Radio
Relay League (ARRL), BPL threatens to create so
much "noise" in this frequency range that Shortwave radio, the original
operator in this frequency spectrum, would be effectively drowned out.
Without any proposed plans or remedies by the FCC to safeguard Shortwave
broadcasting, BPL poses a real and imminent threat to this
To the majority of Americans who have never listened to worldband radio, the loss of Shortwave may appear to be acceptable compared to the benefits of faster and expanded internet services.
But to Shortwave enthusiasts and radio users, Shortwave is indispensable for its ability to transmit international broadcasts from around the world. On the surface, this may appear to be only marginally valuable in this day and age of 24/7 news channels on television and internet access. Upon closer inspection however, Shortwave is markedly different from those other mediums and especially significant for its ability to broadcast news and information directly from other countries at no cost or low cost. As Americans, we have become accustomed to receiving our news in pre-packaged sound bites, selected and served by the mainstream media, biased opinions and perspectives mixed in. Shortwave allows its listeners to hear and its broadcasters to report news and information with a clarity and transparency unmatched by most domestic media.
Shortwave radio is in many ways the last of our untarnished resources. As Americans, we have always been taught and told that it is our freedom that makes us strong and separates us from everybody else. When it comes to news and information, our desire to have the freedom to choose from a wide array of media and media channels is no different.
Shortwave radio represents a cost-effective and easily accessible means for all Americans to get global news straight from the source, a claim that no other technology can make. If this access was denied or impeded in any way, and Americans left with less media choices or channels, then our right to freedom of the press would be unfairly and unacceptably compromised.
The FCC recently voted to allow media conglomerates the ability to increase their holdings in television stations and newspapers, another signal that fewer and fewer companies will end up controlling more and more of what we hear, see, and read. Ironically post 9/11, global news is more salient than ever. In today’s political climate, Americans are seeking international news, culture, and perspectives like never before in efforts to better understand the rest of the world.
We need more media choices to quench our thirst for information, not less. Shortwave is not just another vehicle, but arguably one of the best vehicles to bring the perspectives of foreign countries and cultures into our homes easily and inexpensively. At a time when the FCC seems content on letting BPL eclipse Shortwave, its value and significance is brighter than ever.
fact, Shortwave’s value reaches beyond America’s shores to touch nearly
every country in the world. Without a spectrum to operate from,
even outbound American Shortwave programming that is currently accessible
to millions and millions around the globe will be eerily silent. In short
order, the global exchange of thoughts and ideas, the underlying premise
of both radio and our right to free speech, will be brought to a screeching
halt. To see the potential damage this can
have on the world, we only need to study history. In 1989, the Velvet
Revolution paved the way for democracy as Communism fell in Czechoslovakia
when Václav Havel was elected as President. Havel, a long-standing
and outspoken critic of Communism, cited Voice of Free
Europe, a Shortwave institution, as one of his sources of strength and
inspiration during his struggle for democracy. Though it may be hyperbole
to attribute the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe to radio, it is
clear that its reach is broad, and its influences deep. It would be a
potential foreign policy failure for the United States if Shortwave radio
disappeared. If the elixir of Shortwave could help just one country or
even one community, then Shortwave’s existence would
What the FCC is proposing with BPL is not so much poor technology as it is poorly planned technology. In its current form, the social costs of BPL exceed its social benefits. Ubiquitous broadband is a noble goal that FCC should have in its sights on. The issue here is to find a way to apply this technology somewhere or somehow that does not impact Shortwave radio. Isn’t there bandwidth somewhere else in the radio frequency spectrum for BPL to occupy? Since 1994, the FCC has auctioned and sold off hundreds of frequencies for billions of dollars.
Granted, the United States government has generated significant revenue from these sales, but money cannot buy freedom. It is perplexing that the FCC, the landowner of the airwaves, cannot find a plot of frequency for BPL without encroaching the boundaries of Shortwave.
The FCC’s BPL proposal threatens to set this country down a slippery slope where new technology displaces existing technology without regard for its impacts on citizens and society. The FCC needs to find a way to promote BPL while preserving the freedoms of Americans.
Technology should be a tool for society to improve the lives of its people. If and when this promise is broken, then that technology needs to be reevaluated, rethought, or reapplied until it works properly.
* "Reaching Broadband Nirvana",
Kathleen Q. Abernathy, FCC Commissioner, United PowerLine
Council Annual Conference, September 22, 2003,
2 Excerpt from Bush’s April 21, 2004 speech
President Unveils Tech Initiatives for Energy, Health Care, Internet
Educators understand the great value of broadband technology. I mean, the -- I'm not surprised that people involved in the community college system, when you mention broadband technology nod their heads. It's the flow of information and the flow of knowledge which will help transform America and keep us on the leading edge of change. And we've got to make sure that flow is strong and modern and vibrant. And by the way, we've got to make sure that there's competition for your -- for your demand. We need more than just one provider available for not only community colleges but also for consumers. In our society, the more providers there are, the better the quality will be and the better the pricing mechanism will be.
Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte is using broadband to conduct classes for students all across their state. You know, one of the interesting opportunities for the community college system is to provide education opportunities for people who work out of their home, for example. And the expansion of broadband technology will mean education literally will head into the living rooms of students. That will even make the system more flexible and more available and more affordable.
Same with health care. Again, if you're from a state where there's a lot of rural people, there's nothing better than to be able to transfer information quickly from a rural doc to a hospital for analysis in order to save lives. It's happening all around our country. The ability to send an x-ray image in seven seconds and have a response back in ten minutes with a preliminary analysis oftentimes will save lives. But you hear us talk about making sure health care is accessible and affordable. One way to do so is to hook up communities and homes to broadband. It's going to be a really good way for us to make sure the health care system works better and the education system works better. And it also is going to be an important way to make sure that we're an innovative society.
Now, the use of broadband has tripled since 2000 from 7 million subscriber lines to 24 million. That's good. But that's way short of the goal for 2007. And so -- by the way, we rank 10th amongst the industrialized world in broadband technology and its availability. That's not good enough for America. Tenth is 10 spots too low as far as I'm concerned. (Applause.)
Broadband technology must be affordable. In order to make sure it gets spread to all corners of the country, it must be affordable. We must not tax broadband access. If you want broadband access throughout the society, Congress must ban taxes on access. (Applause.)
Secondly, a proper role for the government is to clear regulatory hurdles so those who are going to make investments do so. Broadband is going to spread because it's going to make sense for private sector companies to spread it so long as the regulatory burden is reduced -- in other words, so long as policy at the government level encourages people to invest, not discourages investment.
And so here are some smart things to do: One, increase access to federal land for fiberoptic cables and transmission towers. That makes sense. As you're trying to get broadband spread throughout the company, make sure it's easy to build across federal lands. One sure way to hold things up is that the federal lands say, you can't build on us. So how is some guy in remote Wyoming going to get any broadband technology? Regulatory policy has got to be wise and smart as we encourage the spread of this important technology. There needs to be technical standards to make possible new broadband technologies, such as the use of high-speed communication directly over power lines. Power lines were for electricity; power lines can be used for broadband technology. So the technical standards need to be changed to encourage that.
And we need to open up more federally controlled wireless spectrum to auction in free public use, to make wireless broadband more accessible, reliable, and affordable. Listen, one of the technologies that's coming is wireless. And if you're living out in -- I should -- I was going to say Crawford, Texas, but it's not -- maybe not nearly as remote. (Laughter.) How about Terlingua, Texas? There's not a lot of wires out there. But wireless technology is going to change all that so long as government policy makes sense.
And we're going to continue to support the Federal Communications Commission. Michael Powell -- Chairman Michael Powell, under his leadership, his decision to eliminate burdensome regulations on new broadband networks availability to homes. In other words, clearing out the underbrush of regulation, and we'll get the spread of broadband technology, and America will be better for it. (Applause.) ....
Why Broadband Over Power Lines Is a Bad Idea
Since 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.
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.
you're interested in this issue, please read some of the documents
available and make your feelings known to the FCC.
NEWINGTON, CT, May 20, 2004--A BPL industry witness told a House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet hearing May 19 that the extensive National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) broadband over power line interference study draws "generalized conclusions," some of which are inaccurate. Jay Birnbaum, vice president and general counsel of BPL provider Current Communications Group LLC was among those answering lawmakers' questions during the hearing, "Competition in the Communications Marketplace: How Convergence Is Blurring the Lines Between Voice, Video, and Data Services." ARRL CEO David Sumner said he found it "interesting" that a BPL spokesperson would try to downplay the significance of the NTIA's findings.
"Clearly, the report has the BPL industry worried--as well it should," Sumner said. "Anyone who gets past the introduction and actually reads the body of the NTIA study can only conclude that NTIA's findings are devastating to the case for BPL."
Among other observations, the NTIA acknowledged that BPL signals "unintentionally radiate" from power lines, but said there's "substantial disagreement as to the strength of the emissions and their potential for causing interference to licensed radio systems."
Rep Greg Walden, W7EQI (R-OR).
The subcommittee members questioning Birnbaum included Oregon Republican Greg Walden, W7EQI, one of two amateur licensees in the US House. Walden asked Birnbaum to address the BPL interference issues that the NTIA report and the amateur community have raised.
Birnbaum responded that he thinks interference concerns about BPL are unfounded and that the FCC agrees. BPL emissions from power lines, he asserted, are at very low levels and dissipate very quickly with distance. Current Technologies is field testing a BPL system in Potomac, Maryland, and has a 50-50 partnership with Cinergy to deploy a full-blown BPL system in the Cincinnati area. The Maryland system employs the HomePlug Alliance standard, which notches all HF amateur bands except 60 meters. It uses orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) technology.
The ARRL documented a visit to the Potomac test area on its Web site. The Potomac site is identified as "Trial Area #1" under "Video showing results of ARRL testing in MD, VA, PA and NY." BPL interference heard outside amateur bands at the Potomac site sounds like severe, irregular pulse-type noise.
Walden also questioned Birnbaum regarding how far away BPL interference might be detected. Birnbaum indicated that while there's disagreement on the issue, it's "literally undetectable" tens of meters away. He said FCC and NTIA engineers have found signal levels too low to measure. He also told Walden that a lot of complaints about BPL are based on outdated data and technology. Walden said he just wants the interference addressed technically--"especially driving under power lines."
The NTIA, which conducted measurements at three different BPL field trial sites, said that while radiated power "decreased with increasing distance," the decay was not always predictable. At one measurement location with a number of BPL devices, the NTIA said, "appreciable BPL signal levels (ie, at least 5 dB higher than ambient noise) were observed beyond 500 meters from the nearest BPL-energized power lines."
A BPL "extractor" on a power line in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area, where Progress Energy and Amperion have partnered to field test a BPL system.
The NTIA study further calculated that interference "is likely" to mobile stations in areas extending to 30 meters and to fixed stations in areas extending to 55 meters from a single BPL device and the power lines to which it's connected. Interference to systems with "low to moderate desired signal levels," such as those common in ham radio, is likely within areas extending to 75 meters for mobiles and 460 meters for fixed stations, the NTIA study said.
Responding to a question from New Hampshire Republican Charles Bass, Birnbaum said the BPL industry would be pleased if Congress could provide tax or financial incentives, especially for improving the power grid. He said utilities have not explored the broadband market in the past because some companies had bad experiences and the technology was not feasible five years ago.
Birnbaum suggested, too, that while utilities are slow to act, they will begin to deploy BPL systems over the next year or two. The biggest issue, he said, is the incentive for utilities to invest in broadband technology.
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Gloria Lalumia is the author of World Media Watch, exclusively available on BuzzFlash.com.
Copyright 2004, Gloria R. Lalumia
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