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Networking The Internet United States

BPL: The Internet's Fool's Gold 300

Joe Barr writes "One of the more fascinating tidbits of information I came across while researching this story on NewsForge about BPL, the fatally flawed wannabe-broadband-provider technology, was that at the very same time the FCC was downplaying the threat of the interference BPL creates, the FCC's very own test results were showing just the opposite."
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BPL: The Internet's Fool's Gold

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:09PM (#12561272)
    Was Slashdot any better with its breathless stories about "The Myth of Radio Spectrum Interference", [slashdot.org] "The Illusion of Spectrum Scarcity", [slashdot.org] and so on?
    • by Jeremy Erwin ( 2054 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:24PM (#12561391) Journal
      It should be pointed out that Ham radios (nor most any other affected device) are not the smart receivers David Reed has in mind.

      From Salon's article:

      The problem isn't with the radio waves. It's with the receivers: "Interference cannot be defined as a meaningful concept until a receiver tries to separate the signal. It's the processing that gets confused, and the confusion is highly specific to the particular detector," Reed says. Interference isn't a fact of nature. It's an artifact of particular technologies. This should be obvious to anyone who has upgraded a radio receiver and discovered that the interference has gone away: The signal hasn't changed, so it has to be the processing of the signal that's improved. The interference was in the eye of the beholder all along. Or, as Reed says, "Interference is what we call the information that a particular receiver is unable to separate."
      • by connorbd ( 151811 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:48PM (#12561582) Homepage
        That's kind of a truism. Thing is, he's advising a ground-up solution. There's no room for tearing down the infrastructure to rebuild from scratch -- you have to work within the existing framework. If he was in Marconi's position and had the ability to redefine the radio world in terms of his theories, I'd call him a genius. But what he's looking for is simply undoable, so I call him a kook.
      • by tarball ( 34682 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @08:16PM (#12562332) Journal
        As an electrical engineer who majored in microprocessor based design and minored in RF design, I would say -

        1) Reed's ideas aren't even decent vaporware yet.
        2) Reed's ideas are going to have problems with the fact that antennas aren't broadbanded enough. And when they are, they are directional (often the wrong ones), and still not very broadbanded. And don't think fractal antennas will work, because they don't work well at all.
        3) Most important - his ideas have nothing to do with the HF section of the spectrum.

        tom
        K0TAR

  • Has anyone calculated the interference of BPL over quantum wires [slashdot.org]?
  • by javaxman ( 705658 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:11PM (#12561290) Journal
    Say it's not so! I'm shocked !
    Where is the administration looking out for the public interest that I've become so accustomed to?!?

    What's that you say? Someone from the White House told them to get broadband-over-power-lines through no matter what, even if it destroys HAM radio and other public-use frequencies through interference? Why on earth would anyone do that? There isn't any corruption or corporate favoritism in Washington, is there?!?

    What do you mean lawyers outnumber engineers at the FCC by a near-infinite margin!?! How could that be so?!?

    • My "public interest" would be nicely served by actually being able to get broadband. And I have power lines.
      • by po8 ( 187055 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @07:25PM (#12561887)

        Parent wrote " My `public interest' would be nicely served by actually being able to get broadband. And I have power lines."

        Which is why this stupid idea is so seductive. Everybody wants broadband, everybody has power lines. What's the problem?

        (1) It doesn't work, and really can't work. (2) It has bad negative consequences for other systems (forget ham radio, and consider the emergency radio bands it overlaps). (3) Even if it did work, it would be more expensive and less available than current broadband channels.

        I mean, everybody who wants broadband probably has water pipes, too. Why not broadband over tapwater? Pulse-modulate the chlorine and fluorine levels in the pipes, and read the bits right off there... BPL isn't much more sensible than BT when you look at it closely.

      • by javaxman ( 705658 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @07:43PM (#12562043) Journal
        A couple of key points from TFA, just so you don't have to be bothered to inform yourself before having an opinion :

        The HF frequency spectrum -- from 3MHz to 30MHz -- and the VHF spectrum - 30MHz to 80MHz -- are the two that would suffer the most interference from Access BPL. These spectrums are used by thousands of public safety agencies: police departments, fire departments, and emergency medical services. They are also used by the military, by government entities at all levels, by ships and planes, and by many other licensed users. The communications of all of these critical functions would be subjected to the interference generated by Access BPL.
        and
        ... transformers can eat the broadband traffic at points between the power plant and its final destination. Now that we know the signal has to carried by other means in order to get it into the neighborhoods being served, a large chunk of the original cost savings have disappeared...
        In other words, it doesn't work _anywhere_ you have to cross over a transformer ( think about how many places you see those ) and would cause problems for public safety, TV, low-frequency radio, and a host of other wireless spectrum uses. We'd be much better off looking at municipal wireless WiMAX-style systems or other means of encouraging broadband network build-out. I agree that both government and industry need to get behind broadband... just not over unshielded high-voltage lines, thanks. There are other methods, many of which are just as cost-effective without the major downsides.
    • maybe on slashdot someone might thing the few ham radio guys are the majority, but i bet DSL to everyone with power will serve the public interest much more than upsetting a few hobbyists who like to see how far they can talk.

      Someone should get them trillian :)
  • So help me out.... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cephyn ( 461066 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:12PM (#12561300) Homepage
    what did the FCC have to gain by pushing a crap technology, one that violates their own rules and interferes with their sphere of influence?

    It wasnt clear to me in the article why the FCC was so high on the tech...
    • by jd ( 1658 )
      Using E-o-P for broadband use is certainly stupid and (I suspect) was largely motivated by greed. There are potential uses for it, though, which might be more rational.

      Ethernet-over-Power would actually make some sense for the power companies themselves, as they'd be able to have "intelligent" power routing within the grid itself, rather than relying on someone at the power stations to hit the right buttons.

      Typically, blackouts such as the one that struck the northeast US and Canada a while back are ca

      • Typically, blackouts such as the one that struck the northeast US and Canada a while back are caused by a combination of mechanical relays using outdated settings, grossly inadequate and inappropriate responses by the power stations, and devastatingly little information getting to those who need it.

        Offtopic to be sure, but the cause of the blackout in the northeast was actually a problem that shows up in lots of redundant systems (as shown in this simple basic program):

        10 One grid failed
        20 Another gr

    • by isdnip ( 49656 )
      The FCC was using BPL as a substitute for real competition. Powell's policy -- Martin has not made his positions clear yet -- was that telephone wires belonged to the telephone company, period, and that they were not obligated to let other companies use them. In other words, he was completely flouting the Telecommunications Act of 1996 as well as a century of Common Carrier law.

      Because the law requires some competition to be permitted, Powell chose to emphasize "intermodal" competition. In other words,
  • by jonharrell ( 621575 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:12PM (#12561304)
    Filters for your outlets... And I thought DSL was bad. -jh
  • by wsanders ( 114993 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:12PM (#12561305) Homepage
    Never underestimate the power of corrupt legislatures and utility companies to force adoption of bad technologies:

    http://powermarketers.netcontentinc.net/newsreader .asp?ppa=8knpp%5EZltmlupoXUnj!6%3C%22bfek%5C [netcontentinc.net]!

    A few BPL trials have been dropped because the technology just cannot compete. But the threat is still real. Once fixed wireless is available everywhere, BPL
    technology's only hope of success is through open graft and bribery.

    My hope would be that Texans would give their much-abused highway signs a break from using them for target practice and begin utilizing the numerous BPL devices that will be
    available. But old habits die hard.
  • by Mr. Flibble ( 12943 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:15PM (#12561322) Homepage
    Shocking. Simply shocking.

  • Laugh Test (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:17PM (#12561346) Homepage
    I've never understood how BPL even made it to the trial stage. Any EE with two brain cells is going to recognize that putting broadband HF/VHF carriers on unshielded power lines is a recipe for interference to many licensed radio services. See that wire going down the road? It's a fscking antenna, you moron!
    • Re:Laugh Test (Score:5, Informative)

      by jd ( 1658 ) <imipak@ya[ ].com ['hoo' in gap]> on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:29PM (#12561441) Homepage Journal
      What amazes me is that it made it to the trial stage in the US even after trials in other countries (such as the UK) had verified that the interference was not only present but unacceptable.


      We're not just talking about ignorance - which can be excused in Government, as it's almost mandatory - we are in the realms of willful stupidity, as the results were known in advance.

    • I've never understood how BPL even made it to the trial stage. Any EE with two brain cells is going to recognize that putting broadband HF/VHF carriers on unshielded power lines is a recipe for interference to many licensed radio services. See that wire going down the road? It's a fscking antenna, you moron!

      Absolutely! We can only assume that the power providers were so desperate to jump on the dot-com bandwagon that the MBAs overpowered the EEs.
    • Re:Laugh Test (Score:2, Interesting)

      by foorilious ( 798451 )
      Putting a signal on an antenna will obviously result in radiation, yes. What's not obvious though, is how much, and how quickly it falls off with distance. It's not clear to me if the entire line radiates and therefore it drops off as 1/R, or if (as some claim), it will instead fall off with 1/R^2 or 1/R^4. Add to the fact that they're notching the public frequencies, and I don't think we can necessarily trust the article's author at his (clearly biased) word that "there will be interference."

      I don't
      • Re:Laugh Test (Score:2, Insightful)

        by baomike ( 143457 )
        I doesn't take much power in this part of the spectrum to have a great range. That's why it is so useful. Depending on the propagation, anyplace in the world is reachable.
        • Not only that, but I'd guess that the grid is so noisy that you'd have to transmit at a fairly high power in order to get a discernable, high-data-rate signal through it.
      • Have you ever heard about the term short wave propagation? Did you take a look at the HF-spectrum used? Did you try to get these two things together?

        With a fraction of the power and a piece of wire an emergency or ham operator can talk to the rest of the world. A pollution of the entire shortwave spectrum will endanger all kinds of communication that relies on it: Military, Emergency, Aviation, Traffic, Navigation.

        Worldwide, since shortwaves do not stop at a nation's border.
    • Re:Laugh Test (Score:5, Interesting)

      by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @07:07PM (#12561731) Homepage
      In the UK though, we bury our power cables, so the cables aren't nearly as leaky.

      However, even in the UK, there's a problem- the street lights are run off the mains too. So you have a whole row of transmitters all neatly lined up. Gah. Presumably it's possible to put a filter on each and every one at ground level, but it's fairly expensive I guess.

      I talked to some of the guys that worked for Nortel on it, they were very enthusiastic, and seemed to think it would work.

      One problem they got around was the streetlights again. At UK lighting up time, all the streetlights turn on, something like: blink, blinkety-blink, blink blink blink, on. Now each blink throws a whole mess of noise on the mains. And you have a whole street full of them. Essentially, the internet connection would go down for a minute or two everyday at lighting up time :-)

      I think they changed their filtering or shortened the packet size or something, and the problem mostly went away... But it was funny.

      Still, I don't see powerline internet really taking off, never did.

  • What if... (Score:4, Funny)

    by spyder913 ( 448266 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:17PM (#12561347)
    What happens if we combine BPL with power over ethernet? Or is that like crossing the streams...
    • What happens if we combine BPL with power over ethernet?

      I just got back from an EMC lab where they were testing emissions from a device using POE. The device was failing all over the place and the tech said this was a common problem they were seeing with POE.

    • Re:What if... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Biogenesis ( 670772 )
      It may be suprising, but in Sydney all the new power lines installed (i.e. ones that replace the ones that get torn down by trees in storms) are being replaced by a twisted quad cable. It's just the 4 conductors (3 phases + neutral) twisted together into one chunky black insulated cable. I'm wondering if the twists are close enough to stop RF from leaking out of them...
      • Most power transmission through commercial areas is three phase, I don't know if it is wired as three phase + neutral though.

        I thought the point of twisting, twisting pairs at least, was to help reject incomming signals, not prevent signal emission.
      • Re:What if... (Score:3, Insightful)

        by thogard ( 43403 )
        No they aren't. They are twisted to reduce 50hz losses (unless they get the cable from the wrong place then it will reduce 60hz) but all the high end stuff is going to radiate out. Depending on the twist and frequency, it may leak more than the older style cables.
      • 3 phases + neutral? I doubt it. Maybe 3 phases + strength reinforcement? IIRC, you typically wire the neutral wire (and the safety ground) to a spike in the soil.
  • by leighklotz ( 192300 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:26PM (#12561416) Homepage
    It's a bad idea [arrl.org] and has been dropped left [arrl.org] and right [arrl.org]. Here's a paper [www.rac.ca] from Canada on BPL. And here's a counter proposal for those who feel that energy companies need to be in the network business: Broadband Over gas [google.com] (apparently not a joke).
  • Cincinnati BPL (Score:5, Informative)

    by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:52PM (#12561608)
    It's being tested [wifinetnews.com] in the Cincinnati area by Current Communications [current.net] a division of Cinergy. Currently, about 8,000 homes wired up.

    According to the section chief [enquirer.com] of the Ohio ARRL, problems are minimal.
    (at the bottom of the article:) "Joe Phillips of Fairfield, the Ohio section chief for the American Radio Relay League, says that so far the Cinergy roll-out hasn't created the radio interference many ham radio operators had feared."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @06:54PM (#12561626)
    I'm going to go with geosynch satts, and those funky troposphere blimps.

    The satts need dialup, right now. Someone fucking work on that. If your option is no-fucking-intarweb-at-all, 800ms pings don't look all that bad. Especially when you can pull 100k/s downloads, and even 10k/s uploads. Beggars can't be choosers.

    The blimps look pretty decent. I'd like to couple that with a small (18" diameter) enclosed antenna. Probably not optical, because it's more prone to atmospheric disturbance (rain). I'm thinking 20ghz, or something really funky like 100ghz. Something that really cuts through the chop.

    I'm no electrical engineer, but if it was my call to make, that's the shit I'd have them working on...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    A clarification -
    Yes, BPL interferes with Ham frequencies. But the FCC allocated emergency ranges are in fact higher on the RF spectrum, and are *not*, repeat *not* in any danger from BPL interference. Sure, it's not a great thing that Ham could be wiped out, but could the advocates please be honest stop trying to pretend that it'll hindre all emergency service communication in the process?
    • Have you looked at a frequency allocation chart lately? Many federal agencies have HF frequency allocations for emergency communications. Not to mention the maritime and aeronautical bands that are used when VHF/UHF is not available due to distance.
    • In fact, amateur radio often IS the major carrier of communications in disaster areas. To communicate beyond the affected area, hams usually have to use HF frequencies. Generally, anything higher than about 50mhz is only good for local (50mi) contacts, unless you're using repeaters. During an emergency situation, you're usually trying to contact someone outside the affected area to exchange data about the situation. Though you might not have power, the person you're trying to contact probably does, and BPL
    • Unfortunately, there is the problem of harmonics. It is explained by the Fourier transform. Signaling at a certain carrier frequency can have substantial impact at frequencies 5 to 7 times higher.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @07:04PM (#12561704)
    All I have in my area is one monopolistic cable provider, anything for some competition.
    Like many other cable providers, they block off vital TCP/IP ports. No incoming port 80 for my web server - no way do the corporations want us to turn into producers on the internet, the corporations only want us to be consumers of their own content. Blocked outgoing port 25, crippling my mail server - naturally, only corporations should be allowed to send e-mail ... we can't be trusted to communicate, and should place our trust in the corporations to "help" (read: censor) with our e-mail.
    • I can not speak for the blocking of TCP port 80. However as a systems administrator at an ISP, I can assure you that the ISP is justified in blocking out bound TCP port 25.

      With the increase of SPAM on the Internet, providers are being more strict with other ISPs that fail to police their IP space for open relays and viruses. A single spammer from one of your netblocks is often enough to get ALL of your net blocks black listed by other ISPs. As a result ISP's are being forced to restrict outbound access t
  • Stupid Idea! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by cashcraft ( 796046 )
    In other words, we are going to sacrifice our country's emergency communications system so that people can get internet access more easily? I don't think so!
  • Poorly argued paper (Score:3, Informative)

    by ugmoe ( 776194 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @07:42PM (#12562031)
    First he states that because rural deployments will cost more than urban that optimal profits will come from operations in the areas with the highest population density, and lower profits -- or losses -- will come from operations outside those areas. Which is true, but so what, nudie bars are more profitable in high population density areas, but they are still present in rural areas - the important question is will it still be profitable?

    Later he agrees that competition would be good for the consumer, but that BPL is not being faster, more reliable, or cheaper than conventional broadband access. But, he leave out the part about it being faster and more reliable than no access at all. Although I'll admit that BPL probably costs more than having no access at all. Finally he begins to selectively quote and reference FCC documents. He talks of notching and quotes a member of the ARRL (association for amateur radio) of which the author is also a member. The FCC data that he claims show that the likelihood of interference is not very low, actually shows the opposite for a properly notched systems. The report showed low to no interference with a an above ground properly notched system simply recommend that the notch be increase by 100kHz in the 10 meter band.

    And for underground powerline systems, there were no caveats at all - the underground systems were always below the limit.

    Why claim that the data proves something that it doesn't?

    http://www.arrl.org/~ehare/bpl/FCC_reports.pd [arrl.org]f

  • by MonMotha ( 514624 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @07:48PM (#12562086)
    I see a lot of people badmouthing BPL or Amateur Radio over one-another. I'm an amateur radio operator, and I'd oppose BPL even if it didn't interfere with the amateur service (as some implementations don't: they notch out the amateur bands since the ARRL has been so vocal).

    It really is a silly idea. Let's run MF/HF/VHF signals over this really long, unshielded wire to deliver internet to people's houses. Of course we can't actually get it to the house because of those pesky transformers, so we still need to retrofit our grid and use something else (like wifi) for the last 100 yards. Then there's that pesky issue of power lines being really bad transmission lines at those high frequencies (they're definately not constant impedence), so we'll have to throw a lot of power into those lines (at RF) to get the signal where we want it. What? It radiates? Hum, oh well.

    The obvious solution is to string real transmission lines (like coax, twisted pair, or, obviously, fiber) along those poles (protected in some kind of harder casing) and underground. But that's expensive? Duh, retrofitting something meant to deliver huge amounts of energy at one frequency (50 or 60Hz, depending on your side of the pond) to deliver data at high rates of speed isn't going to be cheap. At least don't be half-assed about it.

    Also, just so people know. The amateur service doesn't really have all the bandspace people make it out to have. Some bands are surprisingly small: the voice section of 17m, for example, is from 18.110MHz to 18.168MHz - only 58kHz of bandwidth, or enough for 20 single-sideband voice conversations if everyone plays *really* nice and lines up perfectly. There are giant posters like this one [doc.gov] that show the major service to which each frequency band is allocated to in the US (many of which are also assigned internationally by ITU, at least down in HF). The first 3 rows (3kHz-30MHz) are the bands likely to be given problems by BPL. The amateur service is teal-green colored on that poster. Look for yourself how little is actually given to the service on many bands. 80m (3.5MHz) is about the only one that you're likely to even spot quickly below 30MHz!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @08:01PM (#12562206)
    As someone who has been involved in the BPL to some degree, I can assure you that the BPL is a political scam that was never meant to be deployed on any significant scale.
    In the past, FCC required local owners of cable and phone infrastructure (baby-Bells, Verizons of the world, etc) to share access to their wires in a non-discriminatory fashion to avoid "monopolistic" behaviour. Both local DSL and cable operators lobbied heavily and successfully to strike this "mandatory non-discriminatory sharing" provision from FCC rules. BPL was proclaimed a "third alternative broadband technology" that in theory should prevent monopoly or duopoly in residential broadband. The trick is that BPL is not competitive with cable or DSL and, thus, will unlikely be deployed at all. BPL push in FCC was a smoke-screen to enable baby-Bells to monopolize DSL and existing cable owners to monopolize cable broadband accordingly.
  • I would think that this can work in Europe, where most electricity is carried in underground cables.

    When I first visited North America, the third world standard ungodly cable mess strung next to all the roads was quite unexpected to me.

    I find it hard to fathom how the power companies could even have considered using BPL in overhead lines - plain schtoopidttt...
  • by Bloody Peasant ( 12708 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @09:09PM (#12562732) Homepage

    ... other than a 56k modem?

    I challenge those who've been ranting about the technology to stop for a minute, put yourself in my shoes, and see how you like it. Or how you don't.

    I live in a somewhat rural area in central Virginia near Charlottesville. I'm way, way beyond the 15,000 cable foot requirement for DSL so that's out. There is no cable TV within 5 miles or more. And the only company offering wide area Wifi is a no go; I tried but couldn't get any signal because there are hills all around (10 million tons of granite equates to many hundreds of db in attenuation). (I'm also technically within the National Radio Quiet Zone [google it if you never heard of it] which makes additional wide-area wifi towers problematic).

    My electric provider (a rural co-op) has a trial of BPL going right now and they're promising to roll it out to more customers soon. Initial testing on the trial has apparently been good, though I don't know how much attention has been paid to local hams and the impact on them.

    If you're gonna diss my only broadband option, at least gimme some home for an alternative (other than moving)!!!

    • by evilviper ( 135110 ) on Tuesday May 17, 2005 @09:44PM (#12562963) Journal
      (I'm also technically within the National Radio Quiet Zone [google it if you never heard of it] which makes additional wide-area wifi towers problematic).

      Haha! I hate to be the one to tell you this, but even if BPL is rolled out to 99% of the world, you will be in the 1% that won't ever get it.

      If you're gonna diss my only broadband option, at least gimme some home for an alternative (other than moving)!!!

      ISDN, T-1, Satellite, dual-line dial-up. You have a lot of options for broadband, they just don't happen to be terribly cheap. If I was in your place, I would probably start up a broadband company, based on microwave transmitters/recievers.

      But the real issue here is that having broadband is nice, but far from necessary. And HAMs aren't just kids playing around with several thousands of dollars worth of radio equipment, they serve an important role. It's BPL that is stomping all over other radio signals, not the other way around, and it should not be rolled out until/unless they can solve that problem.

      "Dear Slashdot, I live on a coral island in the middle of the Pacific ocean, and the only way for me to get broadband is to drain all the water out of the ocean, but those damn environmentalists keep trying to stop me."
    • I was in this situation when I lived in rural New Hampshire.

      I got a T1 -- you can get these most anyplace a phone line can be ran nowadays.

      Sure, it might not be as cheap as you'd like, but you do have options. And two-way satellite works reasonably well for general surfing and email, too.

    • Apparently nobody's explained to you the difference between a rural and an urban existance. You're obviously going to give up the conveniences of living in a city, but the trade off is that you don't live in a sardine-can apartment with noise/air pollution and excessive crime. Also, it's probably physically possible for you to exceed the speed limit due to a lack of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

      But more to the point, BROADBAND OVER POWER LINES DOESN'T WORK. There. Read it once again if you didn't get it th
  • BPL FAQ (Score:3, Informative)

    by Goody ( 23843 ) on Wednesday May 18, 2005 @07:48AM (#12565469) Journal
    BPL FAQ [qrpis.org] for those wanting a primer on the technology, the issues, and the locations where it's operating.

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