On October 28, 2004, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a Report and Order (ET Docket No. 04-37) adopting new technical rules for the operation of Broadband over Power Line (BPL) systems. BPL is a new type of carrier current technology providing access to high-speed broadband services using electric utilities’ power lines as the communications medium.

As anticipated, the FCC attempted to walk a line between the interference concerns of licensed spectrum users and its enthusiasm for BPL’s potential as a broadband technology that can provide needed competition and innovation to the market. The FCC noted, "on balance, the benefits of Access BPL for bringing broadband services to the public are sufficiently important and significant so as to outweigh the limited potential for increased harmful interference that may arise." The FCC ultimately concluded, "[T]he benefits of Access BPL service warrant acceptance of a small and manageable degree of interference risk." With this philosophy as a starting point, the FCC’s technical rules are a far cry from some of the more draconian measures suggested by opponents that could have been the death knell for the technology before it even got off the ground.

The following are some of the highlights of the FCC’s actions in the BPL Report and Order:

  • The adoption of a modified definition of Access BPL, which carves out In-House BPL and low-speed power line carrier systems, and the adoption of a companion definition for In-House BPL:
Access BPL: A carrier current system installed and operated on an electric utility service as an unintentional radiator that sends radio frequency energy on frequencies between 1.705 MHz and 80 MHz over medium voltage lines or low voltage lines to provide broadband communications and is located on the supply side of the utility service’s points of interconnection with customer premises. Access BPL does not include power line carrier systems as defined in Section 15.3(t) of this part or In-House BPL systems as defined in Section 15.3(gg) of this part.
In-House BPL: A carrier current system, operating as an unintentional radiator, that sends radio frequency energy to provide broadband communications on frequencies between 1.705 MHz and 80 MHz over low-voltage electric power lines that are not owned, operated or controlled by an electric service provider. The electric power lines may be aerial (overhead), underground or inside walls, floors or ceilings of user premises. In-House BPL devices may establish closed networks within a user’s premises or provide connections to Access BPL (as defined in Section 15.3(ff) of this part) networks, or both.
  • The maintenance of current Part 15 emissions limits for Access BPL operations and confirmation that the higher Class A limits are appropriate for BPL devices on medium voltage power lines.
  • The adoption of NTIA's recommendation for excluded bands, exclusion zones and coordination areas:

Exclusion Zones include the geographic area within 1 km of the boundary of listed Coast Guard and coast station facilities and within 29 km of the listed coordinates for 10 Very Long Baseline Array radio astronomy facilities.

Excluded Bands include a number of bands dedicated to sensitive government operations. These include the following:

2,850 – 3,025 kHz

3,400 – 3,500 kHz

4,650 – 4,700 kHz

5,450 – 5,680 kHz

6,525 – 6,685 kHz

8,815 – 8,965 kHz

10,005 – 10,100 kHz

11,275 – 11,400 kHz

13,260 – 13,360 kHz

17,900 – 17,970 kHz

21,924 – 22,000 kHz

74.8 – 75.2 MHz

In Consultation Areas, BPL operators will be required to provide 30-days notice for use of certain frequency ranges to designated contacts in the areas designated by the rules. These areas generally encompass a certain radius around FCC field offices, aeronautical stations, certain land stations, radio astronomy facilities, the Table Mountain Receiving Zone and certain radar receive sites.

  • The adoption of flexible design parameters to implement required mitigation and shut down features for BPL equipment.
  • The imposition of a requirement for notching capability, but declining to specify bandwidth over which notching capability must function.

This includes the incorporation of the ability to avoid (notch) the use of specific frequency bands, and the ability to reduce emissions by at least 20 dB below the Part 15 emissions limits in frequency bands below 30 MHz, and at least 10 dB below those limits in frequency bands 30 MHz and above. The FCC declined to require notching for any specific services (as many incumbents requested).

  • Rejection of the more novel approach of requiring the transmission of identification codes, noting that this could actually increase the potential for interference from Access BPL operations.
  • The requirement for a shut-down capability, but a clarification that shut down need not be the first response to an interference complaint.
  • The establishment of a publicly accessible database managed by a third party, requiring the provision of limited information 30 days in advance of the initiation of any BPL operation. The database is to include the following:
    • The name of the Access BPL provider;
    • The frequencies of the Access BPL operations;
    • The postal zip codes served by the specific Access BPL operation;
    • The manufacturer and type of Access BPL equipment being deployed (i.e., FCC ID);
    • The point of contact for the Access BPL provider for interference inquiries (telephone and e-mail address); and
    • The proposed or actual date of Access BPL operation
  • The adoption of modified measurement requirements and in situ testing of three representative installations, distance extrapolation based on slant distance and existing Part 15 distance extrapolation factors and an option for measuring at 1 meter above ground with a 5 dB correction factor, based on NTIA's recommendations.
  • Imposing an equipment certification requirement on the BPL equipment manufacturer, not the BPL operator, with certification to be initially performed by the FCC and later by Telecommunications Certification Bodies once the FCC has more experience with BPL equipment characteristics.
  • Grandfathering for currently deployed BPL systems with an 18-month transition period for implementation of the new technical requirements for new equipment.
  • The rejection of a separate rule part for BPL, finding that many of the existing Part 15 rules will still be applicable to BPL and would need to be cross-referenced in any event.

The FCC has left open for further proceedings other regulatory issues associated with BPL. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps suggested the FCC further explore such issues as universal service, disabilities access, E911, pole attachments, competition protections and cross subsidization. State regulatory agencies are also examining BPL, but the strong message from the FCC has been — and will likely remain — that it is inappropriate to impose stifling regulation on this nascent technology, with its potential of promoting broadband access to any location with an electric outlet.

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