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10/5/2005
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First Citywide Broadband-Over-Powerline Site Inaugurated

The network, which debuted in Manassas, Va., covers a 10-square-mile area and is available at about $29 a month.

The nation's first citywide broadband-over-powerline (BPL) installation was formally inaugurated Wednesday in Manassas, Va., and the builders of the service presented it as a model for other municipalities.

“What we are announcing today in Manassas is something that could be rolling out in a year or two from now in literally scores of communities across the U.S.,” said Joseph Fergus, CEO of service provider Communications Technologies (COMTek). With some 700 early subscribers and another 500 waiting to subscribe, COMTek is targeting the 12,500 households in the city’s 37,000-person population for the service.

The broadband service covers a 10-square-mile area and is available at about $29 a month. The company said it plans to eventually offer VoIP service.

At a “news event” Wednesday, city, state and national officials and politicians took part in the event. The American Public Power Association (APPA), which initially seeded the project with a grant, was also represented. The partnership also had help from the State of Virginia and the City of Manassas.

There were some hurdles along the way with existing broadband DSL and cable providers unhappy about the installation. In addition, local ham radio operators are complaining that the installation interferes with their activities.

Members of the Ole Virginia Hams (OVH) amateur radio club tested the service earlier in the week and claim the ham and BPL technologies continue to interfere with each other. “The system is highly unreliable,” said George Tarnovsky, a member of the OVH technical committee, in an interview. “They do nothing to filter out the interference.”

Tarnovsky said the radio group filed a complaint with the FCC several months ago and plans to file another complaint. BPL technology has been supported by the FCC in its search for additional broadband technologies. Former chairman Michael Powell visited the installation and praised the concept.

Tarnovsky said protesting radio hams were once threatened with police action, although nothing happened.

One OVH director, Donald W. Blasdell, said he demonstrated interference problems to employees involved with the installation earlier in the week. He said the installation also can interfere with some public safety bands. However, Blasdell said he believes the problem can be fixed and he added that some hams expect to meet with manufacturers of BPL gear to work try to fix the problem.

Other BPL rollouts have been thwarted by interference difficulties.

BPL technology has been put forth as an alternate to DSL and cable broadband and is viewed as a way of bringing the high-speed solution to rural areas that are too expensive to be reached by DSL or cable.

Alan Richardson, president and CEO of the APPA, noted that there are hundreds of municipalities like Manassas with municipality-owned electricity utilities that could be candidates for municipality-owned BPL. He said the proposition shouldn’t be viewed as “an either-or” situation in which subscribers would be offered “either” DSL-cable “or” a municipal service. He indicated different broadband solutions could compete with each other.

The APPA provided a grant to the city of Manassas to investigate BPL in 2001. The APPA has been interested in the technology also as a way to enhance the efficiency and reliability of the electric utilities.

COMTek said it is negotiating with nine other utilities and organizations to deliver similar services.

BPL could eventually compete with citywide Wi-Fi installations, which are beginning to be rolled out. The first Wi-Fi site in Rio Rancho, N. M., covers a 103-square-mile area.

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