[RFI] Why we badly need "party line" materials for all hams

Dave Bernstein aa6yq at ambersoft.com
Sun Jul 18 18:24:16 EDT 2004

A recent post on the Yahoo BPL reflector contains a BPL article by David
Lazarus, an SF Bay-area journalist, that includes quotes from the
president of a local radio club. See
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BPLandHamRadio/message/3728 for the
original article.

This was an opportunity to set out the facts on BPL in a way that
doesn't make us look like oldtimers straining against the wheels of
progress. Instead, all the wrong buttons got pushed -- not because our
representative was ill-intentioned or poorly motivated, but because he
was unprepared.

The response I posted on the Yahoo BPL reflector is appended below.


        Dave, AA6YQ

I'm certain that Mikel Lechner meant well, but the result is highly
counterproductive. This perfectly illustrates why we need a "party line"
summary that helps guide hams when they find themselves being
interviewed as Mikel did. Of course this won't eliminate bad press, but
it will significantly change the balance. 

To be clear, my focus is not Mikel Lechner's specific comments. It is
the absence of accessible information that hams can use to prepare
themselves for interaction with reporters, government officials, or any
other non-ham that might influence BPL adoption. 

Specific comments and suggestions are prepended by +++ below.  


Ham radio operators squawk over BPL 

David Lazarus Sunday, July 18, 2004 

Well, it sure was exciting when Michael Powell, the head of the Federal
Communications Commission, joined execs from AT&T and PG&E in Menlo Park
the other day for a test of newfangled technology to provide Internet
access over ordinary power lines. 

"I think this is critical technology," Powell said at an AT&T facility
on the Peninsula. "This is something we want to see happen." 

Mikel Lechner, a Silicon Valley software engineer who wasn't invited to
the event, is a good deal less enthusiastic about the prospect of
broadband over power lines, or BPL in techno-speak. 

Lechner is president of the Foothills Amateur Radio Society, an
organization of 75 or so local ham radio operators, and he's deeply
worried that the new technology will all but obliterate his pastime. 

+++ This positions the issue as being our self-interest (continuing
pursuit our hobby) over the self-interest of others (cheap, quick access
to high-speed internet). Since there are many more of them than us, and
since there are alternatives to HF refraction for communication, this
puts us in a fundamentally weak position. 

+++ Instead, "If BPL were a great technology, we'd all be jumping
through hoops to find ways to coexist with it. But its not -- its
economics are terrible, and there are much better, cheaper alternatives,
for example WiMAX." And then launch into the specifics of BPL's
"not-really-a-last-mile-solution" problem, and its RFI problems
(focusing more on the impact to public service and public safety
applications than on ham radio). Close with "And shouldn't the power
companies  be focused on making the power grid deliver electricity
reliably? Do you remember what happened in the NorthEast not too long

That's because BPL works by sending radio signals over electricity
lines. The signals travel along the wires and through utility
transformers and eventually arrive in people's homes, where they're
funneled into home computers via special modems plugged into electrical

"The problem," Lechner told me, "is that power lines were not meant to
carry radio signals. That means the signals will radiate from the wires.
They'll escape. And that means anyone within a short distance will
receive interference." 

+++ Characterizing the problem as being limited to "within a short
distance" is technically inaccurate, and weakens our argument. 

The telecom and power industries say this problem has been licked. But
Lechner isn't so sure. 

+++ This was the perfect opportunity to discuss Alliant's recent
withdrawal from BPL due to its inability to mitigate the RFI its pilot
produced. It directly rebuts the "this problem has been licked" claim. 

The radio antenna atop his Campbell home is about 20 feet from a power
line. Lechner can easily imagine what would happen if that wire were
crackling each day with millions of e-mails and Web pages. 

"It would pretty much kill my hobby," he said. "Except for the strongest
signals, I wouldn't be able to hear a thing." 

BPL is one of those rock-your-world tech breakthroughs that has been
percolating in telecom circles for years. But it's only been within the
past few months that serious testing has begun throughout the country. 

+++ Having this sort of BS not appear in an article requires one to
steer the interview so that the specifics of BPL can be discussed. First
its important to distinguish the distribution of high-speed data to a
home (via BPL) from the distribution of high-speed data within a home
(via HomePlug). The latter is convenient and economical, but is hardly
revolutionary -- its been around (and improving) for years. But the
major convenience benefits attributed to BPL -- namely the ability to
get high-speed internet by plugging a PC into the wall -- is an
attribute of HomePlug, not BPL! One can use HomePlug with cable or DSL
today! In addition, its important to point out that BPL generally cannot
bring signals directly into a home -- the distribution transformers
block the signal. Thus the power company must install pole-mounted
equipment -- either transformer bypasses, or WiFi transceivers -- to
complete the circuit. This is no less expensive or time-consuming than
making cable or DSL connections. 

One of the most extensive projects has been undertaken in Cincinnati,
where a local utility is spending about $10 million to make BPL
available to 50,000 homes by the end of the year. 

The advances have caught the attention of even President Bush, who
observed last month that BPL "seems to make sense if what you are
looking for is avenues to the home. Electricity goes into the home." 

+++ A perfect opportunity to point out that the politicians don't really
understand that while electricity goes into the home, high-speed
internet won't unless the utility installs additional equipment. 

Good call. And that's what makes this technology so tantalizing. The
notion that homes, businesses and schools can be wired for high-speed
Net access with relatively little muss and fuss makes BPL a dream come
true for a broadband-hungry world. 

"The technology works right now," declared Bill Moroney, president of
the United Telecom Council, a power-industry trade group. "And by next
year you'll see better technology and the year after that even better

Let's hope so. BPL may be functional in its present form, but it's still
far from perfect. Not the least is no one really knows for sure what
would happen to the nation's power grid if it had to do double duty as a
major communications network. 

+++ Our nation's power grid is in terrible shape, as illustrated by the
recent NE blackout and information revealed in follow-up studies. Why is
the power industry focused on BPL when the basic, critical
infrastructure for which they are responsible is unreliable and getting
worse by the day? 

PG&E spokesman John Nelson said testing to date has shown that data
transmitted via BPL move independently of electricity flowing through
the lines. In theory, he said, that means the grid should stand up to
the rigors of a tsunami of spam pushing Viagra and Nigerian investment

+++ Nice to see that PG&E spokesmen understand superposition. Too bad we
can't link BPL to Spam... 

"The science doesn't change as you go to a larger scale," Nelson said. 

Locally, up to 100 Menlo Park homes will fiddle with BPL for the next
six months. PG&E and AT&T will use the results of the test to determine
when and how BPL will be rolled out on a wider scale in the Bay Area. 

For PG&E, the attraction of BPL isn't repositioning the formerly
bankrupt utility as the next AOL. Rather, Nelson said, PG&E is keen on
the idea that it can have an interactive link with customers, allowing
the company to see where juice is flowing at any given time. 

+++ This would have been a good entre' to "BPL locks subscribers into a
single source of internet access; what's the power industry's track
record for fair and effective pricing?" 

+++ Is there truly economic synergy between BPL and realtime power
monitoring? Pole-mounted transformer bypasses or WiFi transceivers won't
automatically monitor and report power usage; adding these capabilities
would increase both capital and installation costs.  

Moreover, he said BPL would provide for more efficient use of power
throughout Northern California. By being able to show customers the cost
of electricity in real time, PG&E would allow people to choose the
cheapest hour to do the laundry, say, or run the dishwasher. 

"We don't have any plans to be an Internet service provider," Nelson
said. He added, though, that "no business model has been worked out" for
the utility's use of BPL. 

+++ A huge red flag missed. What will happen if, when the business model
is finally worked out, the economics are unattractive? Who will pay? The
municipalities? The subscribers? 

Irwin Gerszberg, AT&T's director of local network technology,
acknowledged that BPL is still a work in progress. But the arrival of
more- powerful chips and modems in coming months will solve most current
difficulties, he said. 

+++ Response: "Exactly what difficulties are you referring to, Mr.

One key improvement, Gerszberg stressed, is technology that allows BPL
networks to recognize competing signals from ham-radio operators and, in
effect, detour around the frequency. 

"Interference really isn't an issue anymore," he said. "Earlier BPL
systems were noisier. Now it's not a problem." 

+++ Response: "Then why did Alliant recently terminate their BPL pilot
in Cedar Rapids due to interference problems and decide to not pursue

The issue at this point, Gersz-berg observed, is how the heavily
regulated telecom and power industries will work together on a
potentially lucrative new revenue source. "It's like making two
elephants dance," he said. 

It's unclear whether PG&E would offer customers Internet access or
whether the utility would lease its lines to one or more service

All Gerszberg could say now is that the relatively inexpensive cost of
hooking up to BPL -- a fraction of the price of wiring a home for cable,
he said -- means that BPL will be competitively priced with other
broadband systems. 

+++ Here's the confusion between BPL and HomePlug being used to BPL's
advantage, again.  

"I'm pretty excited about it," he said. 

Lechner, the ham-radio enthusiast, said he's looked at the improvements
described by Gerszberg and there's still some question about their

+++ "...still some question..." is very weak. 

For example, would a radio operator have to constantly broadcast his or
her presence to the BPL system to gain access to the airwaves? Many
operators prefer to listen to on-air chatter before piping up. Moreover,
would the radio operator have to repeat the procedure on each and every
frequency tuned in to? 

+++ "Many operators prefer to listen to on-air chatter" - this won't
generate a lot of sympathy preserving amateur radio. 

"I'm taking a wait-and-see approach," Lechner said. "The industry can
say what it wants. Nothing is clear yet." 

+++ If we take a wait-and-see approach, we will lose. 

David Lazarus' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He also
can be seen regularly on KTVU's "Mornings on 2." Send tips or feedback
to dlazarus at s... 


        Dave, AA6YQ 

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