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News and comments on community broadband networks, the communities deploying them and the technologies that support them. Published by Denise Frey and Al Bonnyman.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Utilities, fiber optics, telecommunications and broadband over power lines

Increasingly, the web's high tech and policy pundits are looking at power utilities and their current and future roles in telecommunications.

Slashdot has an entry today on BPL (broadband over power lines). The majority of the comments posted (both pro- and anti-BPL) are just plain incorrect; BPL is a pretty esoteric field few understand but many are commenting on. Good places to start to really understand the issues are with yesterday's actual FCC notice and the VJLT article I posted a note about earlier.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the economics and competitiveness of this technology with ill-informed arguments on both sides over whether BPL is primarily best-suited for under-served rural areas. For the reasons I noted in my comments on the Wired article yesterday, it's potentially ideal for small towns, but not necessarily the surrounding countryside.

As we evaluate competing BPL technologies for our utility clients, it's important to understand that managing radio interference issues is the key to successful BPL deployments. The high frequency spectrum BPL shares with many different licensed users is unique -- it's virtually the only spectrum available for over-the-horizon communications. That makes it critical for all sorts of public safety, military, nautical and aeronautical users. Shifting these users to higher frequencies won't work since the range just isn't there; only a re-engineering of the earth's ionosphere will change that. (One Slashdot commentator said that push-to-talk cell phone technology had obsoleted use of these older HF frequencies -- I suggest he try calling out of town on his Nextel phone during the next big hurricane in his area.)

Some BPL advocates are saying that the interference issues go away if you just strip ham radio operators of their HF spectrum allocation -- not realizing that amateur radio operations make up just a fraction of the spectrum used by BPL. Others acknowledge that amateurs play a critical role in emergency communications during disasters, but suggest that hams should only operate during disasters when the power's off and BPL systems are down. If you think about it, that's like outlawing the use of 4-wheel drive vehicles except during bad snowstorms -- don't expect many people to invest in Jeeps and Hummers just to drive the doctor next door to the hospital during a blizzard.

The bottom line is that the only way to make BPL work is with a well-planned deployment using frequency-agile BPL equipment deployed in cooperation with local HF frequency users.

UCLA policy professor Mark Kleiman has a blog entry today on this subject where he quotes a Fiber Planners web page, "Electric utilities and fiber optics -- why?" summarizing power utility's fiber activities.

Most utility fiber is installed for reasons other than just "the pretext of using it for remote meter-reading" as Dr. Kleiman put it. Utilities have large, widely dispersed staffs and assets; prior to utilities' installing their own fiber starting in the 1980s, they tied with local governments as the Bells' biggest customers in any given state. Furthermore, when they used leased lines from the Bells, they paid higher than normal rates in order to have guaranteed quality and 24x7 availability (in order to guarantee safe and rapid breaker operations). Microwave and other wireless systems have also been used, but they've never developed the reputation for uptime and reliability fiber has for critical utility applications such as relaying and SCADA.

Utilities have often installed additional fiber to resell to other users, however energy regulators have always been very scrupulous about cross-subsidization issues, so in the case of investor-owned utilities, this extra fiber has been installed at shareholder risk and expense, not the ratepayers'.

Municipally-owned utilities have also been aggressive users of fiber and have used it not only to link utility assets but also various community bandwidth users such as schools and government offices.

It's important to realize that at a cost of $5,000 to $10,000 per mile (depending on fiber counts and local conditions), most of this fiber is installed upstream of substations. Utilities that want to offer last mile broadband access have three major technologies to choose from:
  • Broadband over power line
  • Fiber to the user
  • Wireless

Fiber to the user offers far and away the best service (voice, data, video), but at $1500 to $2000 per subscriber, it requires a big investment, something many BPL opponents don't always understand when they say utilities should just run fiber to every home.

BPL offers utilities a way to sign up customers now with a low cost broadband technology, then deploy fiber on a pay-as-you-go basis closer and closer to the subscribers as bandwidth demands and market share increase.

We're bullish on all three technologies; in our practical experience, the best choice for a community or utility will depend more on market and human factors than technology:
  • Local availability of broadband from other providers
  • Local reputation of competing broadband providers
  • Utility leadership and culture
  • Community leadership
  • Local and state politics
  • Competing investment requirements within the utility


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