It's Alive! Broadband Over Power Line May Get Boost From Stimulus Bill

Photo: blhphotography/FlickrA provision in the economic stimulus package may funnel up to $2.5 billion through the Department of Agriculture to provide broadband service to people who live in rural areas and lack access to high-speed Internet. But any money spent on Broadband Over Power Lines, or BPL, technology, will be wasted. BPL provides seriously slow web access through old power infrastructures.

The BPL enterprise between IBM and IBEC this week identified where they’ll start delivering these services. Since the Department of Ag already gave $77 million in loans last year, it’s likely to give more, as minimum speeds weren’t written into the stimulus bill. As we’ve noted previously, the viability of BPL as a web service was debunked years ago and should have died quietly. Here’s why:

  • Power lines weren’t built to carry BPL frequencies or broadband data. Broadband experts have noted that high-speed data needs an ample amount of bandwidth, and power lines, which work best at 60 Hz, are not enough. One current deployment of BPL is pushing data at only 256kbps. That’s not progress.
  • BPL interferes with emergency radio. And power lines are unreliable; a simple fault in a conductor could cut off all data.
  • BPL won’t be free for rural communities. IBM has floated BPL pricing plans starting at $30 a month, which isn’t too different from those of cable companies, which offer much higher speeds.
  • Supporters focus on BPL’s ‘communications backbone‘ role in a smart grid, but wireless tech offers less expensive — and faster — solutions. Burbank, Calif., recently chose Wi-Fi over BPL for similar reasons.

Despite this, BPL has been continually resurrected by the FCC. Despite complaints that the tech was not viable commercially and that it altered the “rights of radio licensees,” the agency approved it. (A U.S. Court of Appeals last year said the FCC did not give a “reasoned explanation” for its sole use of positive BPL studies. )

Federal politics aside, BPL is no step forward for the rural customers who need broadband access. Any new dollars spent on it would be better served funding new wireless applications that are more viable for the future.

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