Nation's First Major Broadband Over Powerline Deployment Shuts Down

from the next-time-listen-to-the-engineers dept

We’ve talked for many years about how broadband over powerline (BPL) technology has failed to live up to what little potential it possessed as a viable major third broadband pipe. Pretty much since the technology’s inception, the FCC praised BPL as the "great broadband hope," going out of its way to ignore the technology’s rather nasty potential to interfere with local emergency and ham radio signals. Engineers repeatedly criticized the unshielded delivery system as impractical, but the FCC (and pretty much everybody else) repeatedly ignored them.

To help gloss over FCC broadband policy failures that fortified monopoly or duopoly markets, the FCC told anyone who would listen that BPL was the magic elixir that would save us all from the lack of competition in the broadband sector. Think tanks with ties to BPL hardware vendors issued study after study informing everyone that this would be the year that BPL finally took off. The technology press by and large believed it, flooding the wires with a long line of stories about BPL’s immense, untapped potential. The problem was that in addition to the technology not really working, many utilities simply didn’t want to get into the broadband business, and speeds delivered via BPL were quickly overshadowed by wireless and faster cable technologies like DOCSIS 3.0.

Manassas, Virginia has long been the poster child for BPL’s supposed successes, and was the first real non-trial deployment of the technology in the United States. The city’s network, built by a company named COMTek, offered city residents speeds slower than 1 Mbps for $24.95 a month. By 2008, COMTek was starting to realize their fortunes would never be made in residential broadband using an inherently flawed technology, so they sold the network to the city — and it has been sucking Manassas dry ever since. After pouring $1.6 million into the network and losing about $166,000 a year — the city this week finally voted to shut the network down. All 520 residents have been told to find a new ISP, and the remnants of the city’s "great broadband hope" are being sold off for scrap.

COMTek, who often took an adversarial approach to dealing with local ham radio interference complaints, is now focusing on selling intelligent power network monitoring systems to utilities. Former FCC boss Michael Powell has since moved on to a lucrative career working for broadband carrier funded think tanks, where he’s still busily hallucinating about competition in the broadband sector. As for the residents of Manassas, if it’s any comfort, most of them have the cozy local duopoly of Verizon and Comcast to fall back on.

There are still a few scattered deployments of BPL left in the country, but they serve only a few thousand people and will likely be supplanted in time by faster next-generation wireless. There’s absolutely no doubt Manassas leaders should have done their homework before buying the network, though the FCC’s whitewashing of the technology’s problems didn’t exactly help. Maybe next time the FCC should listen to actual engineers instead of salesmen for companies trying to sell the public a broken product.

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Comments on “Nation's First Major Broadband Over Powerline Deployment Shuts Down”

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Michael Wigle (profile) says:

Re: Nerd Alert

The problem with your analogy is that a home or business can decide they don’t want or need a fax machine and get VOIP. They can even use other services so they can still send/receive faxes even with their VOIP, just not a traditional one.

However, with BPL the transmissions significantly interfered with transmissions over large portions of area because the power lines themselves were generating interference.

So, to use your analogy, it would be like suggesting VOIP is an issue because if I use VOIP the rest of the city can’t use their fax machines or alternative services to send/receive fax machines.

Although to be fair, being a ham myself, I’ve heard that in a couple of places it’s been possible to have BPL without causing any significant interference in other frequencies. I think it’s just too expensive for most utility companies to convert their infrastructure to work that way.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The thing is, BPL still gets used more often than you think. When that Minneapolis bridge collapsed and local towers were too jammed to function, who do you think coordinated emergency responses and helped people stay connected?

There was also a recent Windstream 911 outage in Nebraska where hams came through as the only reliable emergency communications system.

Sure, that says a lot about the quality of our nation’s emergency response networks, but the reality is that ham is still very much in play.

Pete (user link) says:

BPL, why can't we copy the Indonesians??

I’m not a big fan of HAM radio, but we all have to understand that most of the engineers and broadcasters started out using HAM as a way of training, there are many things that also come out of it but that one tid bit I know is enough for me to take their argument into consideration. I’m sure a few of you are ready to blast me, but, it seems that the Indonesians have figured ways around this interference, secondly, the IEEE group Plan 1901N has been ratified as a standard that seems to address all the issues damming BPL.
Thanks for reading

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