ARRL Comments on FCC's Proposed Establishment of Rural Broadband Plan
On March 10, 2009, the FCC invited comments via a Public Notice concerning the establishment of a comprehensive rural broadband strategy as part of the Department of Agriculture's Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, commonly known as the 2008 Farm Bill. Per the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act), Congress required the FCC to develop a "comprehensive national broadband plan." According to the FCC, they, Congress, and the Secretary of Agriculture "have repeatedly recognized the importance of ensuring access to advanced telecommunications and information services to all Americans, with a special focus on rural and hard-to-serve areas." The proceeding provided an opportunity for the ARRL to express its concerns about broadband over power lines (BPL) that the FCC has yet to satisfactorily address.
In the comments submitted by ARRL General Counsel Chris Imlay, W3KD, the ARRL reaffirms its support of broadband opportunities in rural areas. "ARRL is in agreement that broadband is critical to the health of agricultural and other businesses, and to the educational interests of Americans who live in rural areas," Imlay stated. Imlay commended the FCC in looking for broadband solutions on both the short and long term, as well as identifying how Federal programs "might overcome obstacles that currently impede rural broadband development."
Imlay pointed out that while the FCC and various power utilities have touted BPL as a promising means of providing rural broadband service, the ARRL contends that there are "prohibitive limitations (notable among these being the large number, and the cost, of repeaters and couplers required on overhead, medium voltage power lines for what amounts to a limited number of subscribers' homes in rural areas)."
The ARRL maintains that before BPL could ever be considered as a long-term source of broadband in rural America, the FCC must adopt rules that provide against BPL interference to the licensed radio services. Imlay said that studies have pointed out that BPL systems cause interference to licensed radio services in "certain configurations," such as international broadcasting, aeronautical, maritime, disaster relief, military and the Amateur Radio Service. "Of particular concern in rural areas is that low-band VHF radio systems are still common among state police, volunteer fire departments and other 'First Responder' public safety agencies," Imlay told the Commission, "BPL systems using this frequency range can and would, without additional rules, likely block communications between dispatch centers and emergency response vehicles."
Imlay said that Amateur Radio is a "continuous, intensive user of the high-frequency bands in residential areas," and as such, "is arguably the most pervasively affected" by the FCC's plan to widely deploy BPL in rural areas. "Amateur mobile operation is a particularly notable victim of BPL interference, since medium-voltage power lines run parallel to roadways. The Commission's BPL rules "include no effective protection."
Imlay reminded the Commission that the ARRL, as well as broadcast industry representatives, challenged the adequacy of the FCC's BPL interference rules: "On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Court remanded the ET Docket 04-37 proceeding to the Commission with some very specific instructions, including reconsideration of assumptions relating to interference mitigation and disclosure of studies that had previously only been released in redacted form." Imlay pointed out that almost a year after the Court's decision, the Commission has done "literally nothing" to comply with the mandated instructions.
In the six years that the BPL rules have been on the Commission's docket, Imlay said that there has been "continuous and extensive debate about the interference potential of BPL." This, he told the FCC, has created "some uncertainty" amongst the various utilities and municipalities that have been eyeing BPL as a broadband delivery mechanism, with the Commission's inaction since the Court's decision, contributing to the uncertainty and "creating a dampening effect on the marketplace's interest in BPL." Before the FCC can implement a BPL policy for rural America, Imlay said that this "regulatory uncertainty" would need to be resolved.
The cost of implementing interference resolution must be considered by any rural broadband provider, Imlay said. While there is nothing in the FCC rules concerning this, Imlay reminded the Commission that the ARRL, "some eight months ago, offered a plan to the Commission's Office of Engineering and Technology in this regard. The revised regulation suggested by ARRL would be sufficient to reduce the potential interference from BPL to the point that it would be practical to address such instances on a case-by-case basis. Compliance is achievable with present BPL technology without significant limitation on BPL deployment, rural or otherwise. However, the absence of such rules is an obstacle to any consideration of BPL as a rural broadband mechanism and makes an evaluation of interference mitigation difficult or impossible." The deployment of a BPL system with a high potential for interference would require expensive mitigation afterwards, whereas if the potential is reduced to an acceptable level at the time of deployment, the need for mitigation -- and therefore the cost -- will be greatly reduced.
Imlay told the FCC that more than four years ago, the Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) recognized "the need and willingness to utilize agency resources to remove interference concerns as an obstacle to rural broadband rollout (at least via BPL)." In January 2005 letter from then-RUS Administrator Hilda Gay Legg to ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ, regarding the RUS's Community Connect Grant Program, the RUS acknowledged that the cost of interference mitigation from BPL systems was a "significant" issue, and told the ARRL that "whenever a loan or grant application proposes broadband service delivery via BPL, the RUS will 'consider the cost of interference mitigation in [its] financial analysis.'" On March 20, current FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein was nominated by President Barack Obama to become the next Administrator of the RUS.
Imlay told the Commission that "[i]f the means by which a grantee would comply with the Commission requirements for interference avoidance are not clear (which as of now they are not), it is unlikely that any applicant for a grant for broadband service using BPL could address the RUS's concern about interference." Therefore, Imlay said that it is necessary for the FCC to address the BPL interference issues on remand from the Court of Appeals "in order to remove this additional obstacle to an assessment of rural broadband opportunities via BPL."
The ARRL is "constrained" to note that the FCC has, over the past six years, "acted not as a dispassionate technical agency in the evaluation of certain broadband mechanisms, including BPL," Imlay noted, "instead acting as a self described 'cheerleader' for certain technologies, also including BPL." BY these actions, Imlay said that the Commission "has ignored technical evidence that is contrary to its predisposition," and urged the FCC that "those same mistakes" not be repeated here.
Imlay reminded the Commission that President Barack Obama, on his inauguration day earlier this year, placed a series of goals on the White House Web site. "Among these," Imlay said, "was the following, obviously laudable goal: 'Restore Scientific Integrity to the White House: Restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions.' The Commission has the opportunity to implement this goal in this Docket proceeding."
Saying that rural broadband opportunities should be "evaluated in terms of the scientific realities of the technologies on the table, and not on the basis of what the Commission wants to believe about them," the ARRL asked the FCC to fulfill "without further delay the obligations placed upon it by the United States Court of Appeals in ET Docket 04-37, and adopt such revised and additional rules for BPL so as to eliminate the extant interference potential of the technology." With the regulatory uncertainty and unresolved interference issues that continue to surround BPL, the resolution of ET Docket 04-37 is a "prerequisite for the development" of a plan for a complete evaluation of rural broadband opportunities and the development of a rural broadband plan.