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City of Manassas Takes Over BPL System from Private Company

10/16/2008

Late last month, the Manassas, Virginia City Council voted 4-2 to assume control of the Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) service from the private company that serves approximately 675 residents. As a result of the vote, the City of Manassas will now have to use monies from an enterprise fund -- around $110,000, in addition to the approximately $640,000 the city has already spent on BPL infrastructure -- to fund the service and recoup the cost from the subscribers; monies in an enterprise fund come from the utility's ratepayers. BPL technology uses the electricity grid in a city and the wiring in individual homes to provide direct "plug in" broadband access through electricity sockets, rather than over phone or cable TV lines. Because BPL wiring is physically large, often overhead and extends across entire communities, these systems pose a significant interference potential to over-the-air radio services, including Amateur Radio.

According to BPL Today, "Manassas was the first city in the world to have BPL deployed to all its residents and has been a demonstration center for utilities, integrators/operators and government entities from around the globe." It was in Manassas that then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell and then-Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Pat Wood announced completion of the FCC's BPL rules and FERC's support for FCC jurisdiction over BPL before the October 2004 meeting at which the BPL rules were finally adopted, prompting an ARRL complaint. BPL Today is a weekly journal for the BPL industry.

The City of Manassas launched a field trial to test out BPL technology in July 2002; 15 months later, they awarded a 10 year franchise to Prospect Street Broadband. This company agreed to expand the field trial and offer high speed Internet service to the entire Manassas community via power lines. In April 2004, the city terminated its contract with Prospect Street and puts the contract out for rebidding. At this point, the City of Manassas had spent $140,000 in BPL equipment to serve 200 accounts.

In March of 2005, Manassas reported that it had signed up more than 200 customers for BPL services, with another 1300 on a waiting list. Manassas officials said they "expect[ed] to spend [another] $500,000 enhancing its telecommunications and electrical infrastructure by the time COMTek completes the installation [later that month]."

In October 2005, COMTek, based in Chantilly, Virginia, announced the first city-wide BPL service in Manassas. According to COMTek, the City of Manassas -- located 30 miles southwest of Washington, DC -- had the potential for more than 12,000 residential and 2500 commercial subscribers. In May 2006, Philadelphia-based GridPlex announced it would acquire Manassas' BPL program from COMTek.

In May 2006, BPL Today reported that GridPlex had the goal of "growing the deployment into a state-of-the-art smart grid including a wide range of municipal applications such as electricity demand response, energy and water conservation, security monitoring and many more." GridPlex also announced plans to upgrade and modernize the network in Manassas, including the provision of smart meters.

In July 2008, the Manassas City Council held a public hearing concerning GridPlex's takeover of the BPL system. The Director of the City of Manassas Utility Department, Mike Moon, told the council that the cost for BPL services -- currently $28.95 per month -- could be lowered and said GridPlex had plans to improve connection speeds. Moon did not give a timetable for when the change would take place, but said subscribers would be notified when it was to occur. No one at the hearing spoke in favor or against the provider change.

Moon said that if GridPlex acquired COMTek, this would permit city residents to utilize GridPlex's smart grid technology, allowing them to tap into "cost effective, conservation encouraging technology." Residents could keep track and control their consumption of water and electricity on a daily basis. "We are in discussions with [GridPlex] on using those services, but we're not to the point of making that final decision," he said. "That's a $4-5 million project for us, so we have to make sure it's the right company, the right business plan for the city."

At the Council meeting in September, Moon explained that GridPlex's takeover of Manassas' BPL system -- scheduled for early August 2008 and postponed many times -- would not occur. According to the meeting minutes, "The inability of GridPlex to take over the COMTek franchise has made it necessary for [Manassas] to assume the operation of the BPL system and the current customer base, which consists of approximately 675 residents. The City must now purchase all assets owned by COMTek and will then exercise a short-term service agreement to service existing accounts." Speaking for Moon, Manassas' Utilities Deputy Director (Electric) Gary Paulson told the ARRL that the cost of the assets totaled approximately $110,000. "This includes all the hardware, software and licenses needed to operate the BPL system," Paulson said.

Four members of the six member Council voted to take over the BPL service. According to Kipp Hanley, a reporter for the News and Messenger in Manassas, this means the city will have to use a small percentage of its electric department reserve fund to pay for the service for the next six months. After six months, Hanley told the ARRL, it will be up to the Council if they want to include it in the city budget.

One reason to keep the BPL technology, he said, is Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) via the smart grid, something that the Manassas utility department has advocated. Moon said that his office is also looking at other ways to carry AMI, such as wireless. This was put out to bid in September 2008.

Manassas Vice Mayor Andy Harrover was one of the four who voted to take over the service from COMTek. Harrover told the News and Messenger he voted in the affirmative as a "common courtesy for those who use the service and for the future of the AMI system," but said he has a "fundamental problem" with the city providing Internet services. "The philosophical question is should the city be in the Internet business and the answer is no."

Councilman Jonathan Way was one of two members who voted against taking over COMTek's services. "If we really feel compelled to compete, we should do so with modern, fast and reliable technology," he told the News and Messenger. "The current operator of the BPL system cannot make a go of it and wants out. There should be a lesson hiding somewhere in that fact."



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