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End in Sight for "Third Battle of Bull Run"?

11/23/2009

ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ, once termed the battle of Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) in Manassas, Virginia as the "Third Battle of Bull Run." While the war against harmful interference to Amateur Radio via BPL is not yet over, the battle in Manassas might soon be coming to an end.

In a Special Meeting on Monday, November 16 of the Manassas City Council, the Council voted "To allow the [City of Manassas] Utility Commission to make a recommendation to the [Manassas] City Manager as part of the FY 2011 Budget regarding the decision to continue offering Internet service; additionally, staff was instructed to discontinue all marketing and advertising of Internet service." This motion passed 4-2.

At the meeting, Manassas Director of Utilities Michael Moon told the Council that "it is not cost-effective to continue the internet service on the Main.net BPL communication system as a stand-alone cost center" and that the City "need[s] to make the decision for internet service in the context of what communication system will be used for the City's AMI [Advanced Metering Infrastructure]."

Sumner said that the Manassas BPL system was "once touted as 'the most successful BPL deployment in the nation.' Manassas actually has demonstrated that there is no business case for BPL as a consumer broadband delivery medium."

According to the News and Messenger, a local newspaper that serves the Manassas area, Councilman Jonathan Way said that the City "needs[s] to get out of BPL forthwith. It's not a good product. The whole business is not financially sound and it never has been." Councilman Mark Wolfe agreed with Way, saying he wanted to see the system shut down by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, starting the shutdown process now. (Editor's Note: According to Manassas City Clerk Andrea Madden, the article in the News and Messenger stated some incorrect information and a retraction is soon to be forthcoming from the newspaper. The inaccuracies have been corrected in the ARRL's report.)

The newspaper reported that the City of Manassas' Utility Commission proposed to make the decision whether to shut down the system by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2010. While Wolfe and Way want it shut down before that date, Councilmen Marc Aveni and Vice Mayor Andy Harrover argued to leave BPL out of the City's next budget; by doing this, there will be no funding for the service and it will go and die what the News and Messenger called "a natural death."

According to the newspaper, Way said that waiting until the end of the fiscal year to make the decision "would cost more money because the city couldn't just turn off the service overnight once the decision is made." Forecasts by the Utility Commission show that the City's BPL service is projected to lose up to $171,353 each year over the next nine years. Way said that's money the city could ill afford to lose: BPL, he said, "should go and be over and done with."

Manassas residents pay $24.95 each month to receive Internet service via BPL. The Utility Commission showed the Council that little more than 500 residents and 46 businesses currently subscribe to the service, which since 2008, has been run by the City. "It's costing a little more to maintain the system than we projected in the budget," Moon told the Council. "The original projections were that the customer base would be double this." In September 2008, the Manassas City Council voted to assume control of the BPL service from COMTek, the private company that served (back then) approximately 675 residents.

Manassas' Assistant Utilities Director (Electric) Gregg Paulson told the ARRL that as for now, Internet service in the City of Manassas will continue, but the Council will make the decision to continue it in the next fiscal year during the budget approval process. "We'll work it through the budget," he said. ""We have every intention of putting BPL Internet service in the budget and the Council can decide its fate as they work through the budget process."

Paulson said that while Internet service to consumers would "probably" be the only thing that would be cut if the Council decided to forego BPL, he left the door open as to using the BPL infrastructure for other purposes: "We still own the BPL network, but we may or may not use this network for utility monitoring or other AMI purposes."

The Council considered two motions concerning BPL during the Special Meeting. The first motion, made by Councilman Way was ultimately defeated 2-4: "To direct the Utility Commission to discontinue Internet service in an expedited but orderly manner by the end of the fiscal year, to instruct the Utilities staff to refrain from Internet marketing efforts and promptly advise its customers of the intent to discontinue service, and to authorize the Utilities Department to sell or franchise the BPL system and hardware to third parties, but avoid leasing or partnering or developing other relationships which would involve continued Utilities participation in the Internet operation."

Once that motion had failed, Councilman Aveni made the motion that passed 4-2, clearing the way for Manassas to keep BPL Internet service in the upcoming budget.

Manassas and BPL

BPL and its interference with Amateur Radio has a long history in Manassas: "The story of BPL in Manassas begins in May 2002, when the City of Manassas launched a field trial to test BPL technology using equipment provided by Main.net," wrote Sumner in his June 2006 editorial, It Seems to Us. "Based on a positive report of the test results from its Utilities Department, in October 2003 the Manassas City Council voted to grant a 10-year franchise to an unknown company called Prospect Street Broadband to expand the field trial and offer high-speed Internet service to the entire community of 35,000. At the time the utility estimated it would take 120 days to roll out the entire system. The City was told it could expect as much as $4.5 million in revenue -- an utterly fanciful figure -- from the 10-year franchise."

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 was a weekly journal for the BPL industry; it is now called Smart Grid Today.

Sumner wrote that Manassas "knew about the [Amateur Radio] interference issue. Because the equipment [they chose to use] was known to be problematic, a few days after the franchise was awarded, I wrote to the Mayor of Manassas to advise that 'tests conducted by ARRL technical personnel have shown that the system planned to be deployed in Manassas causes harmful interference to the Amateur Radio Service' and that the ARRL 'will ensure that there is full compliance with the FCC regulations.'" Section 15.5 of the FCC Rules states that "the operator of a radio frequency device shall be required to cease operating the device upon notification by a Commission representative that the device is causing harmful interference. Operation shall not resume until the condition causing the harmful interference has been corrected."

In a letter dated April 6, 2006 to Katherine Power of the FCC's Spectrum Enforcement Division, COMtek attorney Tom Grady said COMtek had plans to upgrade the Manassas system "as soon as practicable" and that COMtek "expects that the upgrade of BPL equipment along the Route 234 corridor will be completed by the end of July 2006. A system-wide upgrade to G2 BPL equipment to improve service to existing customers is slated to be completed by the end of November 2006." Grady explained that this equipment upgrade "should resolve any remaining question as to whether the Manassas BPL system is causing harmful interference to mobile operations."

As for today, Sumner said that "the BPL system in Manassas failed financially a long time ago and has only been kept operating through local taxpayer subsidy and neglected maintenance. As for interference, it's worth noting that while attorneys for COMTek told the FCC in April 2006 that a system-wide upgrade to G2 BPL equipment was to have been completed by November 2006, this week's report to the City Council said that only 23 percent of the system was G2 -- three years after the system-wide upgrade was promised. No wonder the interference problems in Manassas have persisted right up to this day."

According to ARRL Lab Manager and BPL expert Ed Hare, W1RFI, the only way that BPL can avoid causing harmful interference to licensed radio services "is to have sufficient filtering of the BPL signal on locally used spectrum. State-of-the-art BPL equipment can achieve 35 dB of filtering easily. This level of suppression of BPL noise has been shown to be a good general solution to avoid widespread interference problems. In residential areas, it is common to find people using Amateur Radio, Citizens Band and international shortwave broadcast spectrum."

George Tarnovsky, K4GVT, of Manassas, is President of the Ole Virginia Hams Amateur Radio Club. "We hams in Manassas have 'battled' BPL and the harmful interference issue since 2002," he told the ARRL. "We tried to work with the City and the suppliers, only to be misled, belittled and lied to, but we never gave up. The amateur community could not coexist with the system as it was initially designed. Despite big money influence and BPL-FCC alliance, the truth prevailed -- BPL as installed in Manassas is flawed. We spent countless hours educating the BPL consortium that they were causing interference to licensed services. We filed numerous complaint letters to the FCC before getting their attention. But all was not lost; we did what we had to do in order to prove this system as rolled out here in Manassas, was flawed."

In 2008, Way was one of two members who voted against the City of Manassas taking over COMTek's BPL services: "If we really feel compelled to compete, we should do so with modern, fast and reliable technology. 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."

Harrover was one of the four who, in 2008, voted in favor of taking over BPL service from COMTek. He told the News and Messenger he had 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."

Tarnovsky thanked the Manassas-area hams "who put so much into field monitoring, complaint letters and meetings, as well as their undying perseverance in the face of powerful entities as government, and big money BPL. I would also like to thank the ARRL and their team: Ed Hare, W1RFI, and ARRL General Counsel Chris Imlay, W3KD, for their support. Without this support, it would have been impossible come so far. To those of you still entrenched in the fight against BPL's harmful interference: Don't give up -- it's because of the individuals like you that our Amateur Radio privileges will not be infringed upon."

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, is often overhead and extends across entire communities, these systems pose a significant interference potential to over-the-air radio services, including Amateur Radio.



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