01:06 PM

FCC Chairman Visits Broadband Project

The broadband over power line project in a rural North Carolina is designed to provide competitive alternatives to DSL and cable modem service.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Michael Powell demonstrated just how committed he is to finding competitive alternatives to broadband, when he visited a broadband over power line project in rural Wake County, N.C.

The test, which is bringing BPL to three neighborhoods, is being conducted by Progress Energy, EarthlLnk, and Amperion. A spokesman for Progress Energy said a "technology test" was successfully completed last year; The current trial will determine the feasibility of the finer points of the technology and determine its commercial possibilities.

Powell--who has already expressed a strong commitment to BPL--was accompanied on Friday's visit by two colleagues. The FCC last month, in an effort to smooth the way to more widespread use of BPL, proposed changes to some technical rules designed to solve any interference difficulties.

"Commissioner Powell saw a 2.5-Mbps downlink and 1.3-Mbps uplink demo," said Matt Oja, Progress's director of emerging technologies, in an interview Monday. "This is more of a middle-to-last mile solution." While the FCC has expressed an interest in promoting BPL as an alternative to DSL and cable-modem broadband, it is likely to be most competitive in semi-rural and rural areas.

Amperion gets involved by supplying 18- to 24-Mbps transmissions of medium-voltage down-power lines. It then adds Wi-Fi hotspots to deliver broadband to end users. "We did Wi-Fi because medium voltage used for distribution can be life-threatening," said Bill Simon, Amperion's director of marketing. "Consumers then can do Wi-Fi, which is easy and safe."

Amperion recently completed a rollout of its BPL technology in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, creating a giant Wi-Fi hotspot in the Canadian city.

EarthLink is handling the marketing for the Wake County project. In all, the BPL technology is expected to pass by some 500 homes. Currently, the neighborhoods are served by cable modem but not by DSL. The project is seeking to sign up 20% of the homes.

Last month, the FCC proposed a new set of rules--called Part 15, in FCC vernacular--to foster BPL deployment and to safeguard against interference. The tests conducted last year in Wake County were said to have satisfied many, if not all, of the concerns over interference. The FCC Part 15 notice seeks to promulgate techniques that would require BPL devices to meet certain non-interference standards.

The entire BPL phenomenon is picking up steam nationally, as several firms--including many power utilities--are testing systems and beginning to bring them to market. In recent days, Cinergy Corp. and Current Communications have unveiled a BPL service. While the North Carolina project involves Wi-Fi as the final delivery vehicle, other BPL programs use T1 or fiber.

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