BPL Provider IBEC Announces Shutdown
IBEC -- one of the very few remaining operators of Access BPL systems -- has announced that it is closing down. In an undated announcement that appeared on the IBEC website, the company announced that it has “no other option than to close our doors and cease operations.” IBEC claims that it cannot recover financially from the April 2011 tornadoes in Alabama that “ravished some of our major service areas.” IBEC provided Internet service via broadband over power lines (BPL) to rural communities.
IBEC said that it expects service to continue through the end of January, but that it “cannot guarantee the quality and availability of service during this period.” IBEC will discontinue its customer service operations as of January 16. In a letter to IBEC customers dated December 23, 2011, IBEC said that it “will no longer be in a position to provide Internet service to your area. We encourage all of you to pursue other options for your Internet services as soon as possible. This includes your e-mail service.”
“While we regret the loss of jobs brought about by IBEC’s broadband over power lines (BPL) business failure, in the long run the rural areas that IBEC was trying to serve will be better served by broadband technologies that are superior to BPL and do not pollute the radio spectrum,” said ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ. “While initially IBEC was cooperative in addressing the ARRL’s concerns about interference to licensed radio services -- including Amateur Radio -- the ARRL was dismayed to find that the systems as actually deployed fell short of meeting even the inadequate requirements of the FCC’s rules. We hope that this latest in the long string of BPL failures will persuade the few remaining fans of Access BPL to turn their attention elsewhere.”
More than a year ago, the ARRL filed a complaint with the FCC, documenting ongoing harmful interference and egregious rules violations by IBEC-installed BPL systems in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Indiana. The ARRL had requested that the FCC “initiate immediately an enforcement proceeding regarding these BPL systems, and cause them to cease operation until such time as they are each in full compliance with the Commission’s Rules.” The ARRL even discovered IBEC BPL systems in operation that are not listed in the online BPL database -- another clear violation of the FCC rules, which require listing 30 days prior to initiation of service. To the ARRL’s knowledge, even as of today, the FCC has taken no enforcement action to correct these violations.
IBEC Chief Executive Officer Scott E. Lee told customers that although he was sure that the closure was “an unexpected surprise,” his team “has done all things possible to stop this day from coming. Our demise, started with the April 27th storms of this year in Alabama, which destroyed over 3.2 million in assets, which our Insurance Provider (CHUB) has refused to pay. We also lost a critical investment from an Investor commitment, due to these storms, putting IBEC into a negative financial situation. IBEC pursued assistance from RUS (our Federal Creditor at US Department of Agriculture), our vendors and endless potential buyers after these events without success.”
Jeff Loven, the General Manager of French Broad Electric Membership Corporation, told the ARRL that he had only heard about IBEC’s closure around 10 AM January 3. “We really don’t know what we’re going to do right now,” he said. “IBEC only served a small number of our customers.” Loven said that of FBEMC’s 37,000 customers, only 200 subscribed to IBEC’s Internet service. FBEMC serves Madison, Buncombe, Yancey and Mitchell Counties in North Carolina, and Unicoi and Cocke County in Tennessee.
In Virginia, Central Virginia Electric Cooperative’s Member Services Manager Greg Kelly told the ARRL that with IBEC leaving the area, they will begin looking for “anyone who is committed to serving rural space for broadband. I’m not sure how many customers IBEC served, as Central Virginia Electric Cooperative had nothing to do with the service; IBEC just put their equipment on our poles.” CVEC provides service to 33,000 customers in 14 counties in Central Virginia.
The ARRL asked Kelly if CVEC would use the IBEC equipment to provide broadband Internet service to its rural subscribers, Kelly said he didn’t know: “IBEC owns and operates the system. If we used the equipment, we would have to train people on how to use it, how to maintain it. Maybe a third party would have to come in and operate it for us. I just don’t know. But if I had to guess, it will just lie dormant if it’s not removed.”
Kelly cited the Alabama storms as the reason for IBEC’s dismantling. “I’m not sure how many customers we have here in Central Virginia,” he told the ARRL, “but in Cullman, Alabama where the tornados hit, IBEC lost 1400 customers.” IBEC is headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama.
ARRL Laboratory Manager Ed Hare, W1RFI, has made field strength measurements at several of the IBEC BPL sites. Over a period of two years, he has consistently found that these systems were operating at levels much greater than the permitted FCC limits.
“Distribution power lines are simply not designed to carry broadband signals,” he explained. “Although systems can be designed to work in that hostile environment under ideal conditions, in practice, conditions are not ideal. In system after system measured by the ARRL over the past 10 years, Access BPL systems were operating at levels from 15 to 40 dB greater than the FCC limits, but still not working well.”
From an interference perspective, Hare said IBEC’s closure is good news: “There are still BPL systems running in the United States. Now that IBEC is out of the game, no other system in the country uses the amateur bands in their deployments.”