BPL country trials generate new opposition

Regional and rural NSW utility Country Energy has announced it has been trialling Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) technology successfully at 45Mbps speeds with residents in the Queanbeyan area, with the promise of 200Mbps in the coming months.

However, despite the local success, opponents of the super-speed internet service argue that Australia should not be a test bed for this type of technology.

If the utility provider commercialises the BPL technology, the coverage could be massive -- Country Energy has ownership of 195,000Kms of power lines in NSW.

However, the provider is playing down any large rollouts: "This is early stage exploration, as apposed to a decision to make it go forward," stressed Angela Fiumara, Country Energy Group Manager Corporate Affairs.

Country Energy is a wholesaler and retailer of power to all of NSW except the Sydney, Hunter and Illawarra regions. The company also provides natural and bottled gas, renewable energy and also has its own ISP -- CE Internet -- which it has employed in the trials.

The utility began the trial in November last year, in two locations; a residential street and in an SME in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. The trial started with a handful of users and will soon total 30, said Geoff Fietz, Country Energy's manager of telecommunication enterprises.

He said each user had been provided with a laptop and a BPL modem to they plug directly into their power points.

Fietz said user download speeds had averaged 10Mbps, but this would change in the next month when the company installed new Head-end boxes that clock 200Mbps, from its hardware supplier Mitsubishi.

Head-end boxes in the BPL-world are akin to what DSLAMs are in the DSL world. They are installed either on the power pole or in underground pillar boxes. They take feeds from the Internet and convert them to a form which can be transmitted over power lines. In addition to the head-end, the utility needs to install repeaters on the poles to maintain strong data signals.

BPL has also been making headlines elsewhere. A Tasmanian parliamentary commission heard last Thursday that customers which took part in a recent BPL trial were "rapt" by the service.

Dr Peter Davis, the CEO of Tasmanian electricity retailer and distributor Aurora Energy, told the Parliamentary Scrutiny Committee hearing last week how the company had used its power lines to connect broadband to four 100-year-old houses near St David's Park.

"We injected an Internet broadband signal into the power line in our office building and then wandered down the street to see if it had turned up in these cottages, and plugged the computers into the power point -- because the signal now comes out of the power point -- and the customers were absolutely rapt," he said.

Davis said the trial in Hobart was "very successful" and Aurora was working with a couple of other utilities to run a trial in Canberra. As it stands, Aurora is a partner in Country Energy's Queanbeyan trial.

"The reason we are doing it in Canberra is the communications regulator [Australian Communications Authority] lives up there and we want to make sure there are no issues with radiation or whatever affecting ham radio operators. So we are doing it very carefully and very precisely," he said.

Overseas examples

Although the benefits of having broadband technology available at every power connection are very appealing, there is also a large social cost, according to Philip Wait, Director, Wireless Institute of Australia (WIA).

"We believe the best approach towards BPL is to 'wait and see' the results of international trials in order to properly determine the true harmful effects on our national communications," he said.

The US, for example is in the midst of broadband trials, and not all are without hiccups. Ed Hare is the laboratory supervisor at The American Radio Relay League. A posting to the US-based BPL and Ham Radio newsgroup shows that his experiences with BPL operators conducting a trial in Florida have proved less than fruitful.

In his post, he says: "Two years ago, this industry made promises that BPL would not interfere, and in the rare case it did, they could easily fix it. All anyone should expect is that they actually demonstrate that they can keep that promise."

Why interference is a problem

For WIA's Wait, the interference to radiocommunications services mentioned by Aurora's Davis, and Hare overseas, is of major concern.

He said it could have harmful affects on the 14,000 Australian Radio Amateurs, and Citizens Band Radio operators as well as the other 22,000 licensed (non-amateur) HF spectrum users in Australia, including emergency and safety of life services.

But the cost is not just a technical one, it is also financial. Interferences to services which they pay for does not sit well with licence holders, who pay yearly licence fees ranging typically from just under $100 each to well over $10,000.

According to Wait, the general community is not fully aware that HF radio is still widely used in Australia -- mainly in remote areas -- and is particularly important for safety use.

Examples of HF radio are varied. For example, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority operates two large HF radio stations in WA and Queensland to provide distress and safety communications for shipping in the Australian Search and Rescue region.

HF radio is also used by tour operators, trucking companies, mining organisations, police services, and farmers. The Royal Flying Doctor service still uses HF radio to coordinate emergency medical evacuations and to provide remote diagnostic services. And closer to the cities, Air Services Australia operates air-ground HF radio networks for use by international and domestic aircraft.

Country Energy's Fietz said he was aware of the side effects of BPL transmissions: "We have had a number of approaches from HF users. We are treating it [radio interference] seriously..."

Fietz said Country Energy had already brought out an expert, Dr John Newbury, Head of Power Communications Systems Research at the Open University at Manchester, UK, to conduct emission testing in November. It is now awaiting a final report.

However, he feels BPL has a niche place in the country in the future.

"I don't know what proportion of Australia's power grid will be covered by BPL in two years. But it won't be huge," he said.

Government intervention

In light of the recent BPL activity, the ACA set up a committee last year to oversee the BPL trials. It is currently seeking input from all stakeholders who have an interest in BPL.

"Existing Legislation never envisioned the use of power lines for broadband transmission. So we are looking for some guidance on how we will regulate these systems," said Peter Young, manager of the ACA's BPL project team.

"By the end of the year we will know which way we will want to go."

Young said the ACA was canvassing a range of options for future regulatory environments. But it will be a long haul -- he anticipates that it would be two years by the time legislation, such as the Radiocommunications Act, is changed.

In the meantime, an ACA discussion paper on how to manage interference caused by BPL technology will come out in April.

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