Channels ▼

Jonathan Erickson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Down On the Farm with BPL

November 16, 2008

In an recent installment of Dr. Dobb's Report newsletter, I wrote a short article entitled "How You Goin' Keep 'em Down on the Farm, Once They've Used DSL." Rather than telling you what I had to say about broadband reaching out to rural America, I present it here. But what's interesting is not what I had to say, but what readers such as yourself added to it. As always, I learn more from readers than readers learn from me.

Why, when I was growing up, I milked the cows, walked miles to school, and accessed the Internet via dial-up. You bet I couldn't wait to get off the farm and into town. Okay, these days pipeline milking systems are common and school buses make their way through hill and dell. But alas, dial-up Internet access is still the norm, out there in the boonies.

That may be changing, however, thanks to efforts by IBM and International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC), which have signed a $9.6 million agreement to have IBM install Broadband over Power Line (BPL) networks at electric cooperatives throughout the eastern U.S. IBEC will focus on providing broadband services to underserved residents in rural America.

Currently, there are more than 900 electric cooperatives in the U.S. providing 45 percent of the total electric grid and covering 75 percent of the U.S. land mass. BPL uses power lines to quickly and inexpensively deploy broadband access. IBM will provide overall project management, oversight, and training of the line crews installing the BPL equipment. IBEC will provide the BPL technology and equipment, and serve as the ISP to these rural residents.

While initially focusing on broadband Internet services for rural communities, the service also makes it possible for electric utilities to monitor, manage, and control the reliability of their electric grid. The deal is the first of its kind to deploy BPL technology in the electric cooperatives.

Hmmm, maybe I can go home again...

Geoffrey Knauth got the ball rolling with the following:
I enjoyed your DDJ note about IBM, IBEC and BPL.  I have one concern.  A friend of mine, Gerry Sussman at MIT, is also a ham radio operator.  He told me once that BPL makes life very difficult for hams. I hope that BPL efforts can take that into consideration and make appropriate modifications.
That got me thinking, and luckily ham operator Michael Bragg stepped up to fill in some blanks for me:
I hope IBM can pull this off cleanly, after all the failures of BPL -- including FCC's failure to follow its own rules, and making itself look foolish in front of the world of administrative law, science, and every amateur radio operator in sight.  Had they not been taken to court, and lost in the light of simple scientific fact shown by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), they might actually have had the momentum to carry junk technology into widespread use, destroyed our hobby, and set terrible precedent for ignoring frequency allocations worldwide -- which that same FCC fought hard for years, to establish.

Now, with some better technical approaches available, it's still unlikely that BPL will make economic sense; but if it does, there's a chance that the radio frequency pollution will be tolerable.  At least for us hams.  Too bad the new technology shifts the emissions into the short-wave broadcasting segments.

And Bill Thompson added some more food for thought:

Please don't take the BPL press releases from the Utilities Telecom Council at face value.  BPL systems in the US have done very poorly financially.  The only reason they exist at all is that the FCC ignored the laws of physics when they created the rules for BPL.  BPL puts radio frequency energy onto wires that were intended to transmit 60 Hz power.  This RF energy leaks out very heavily, jamming short wave radio reception over the entire area where the system is installed.  Hence the legal trouble the FCC is now in. (  Once the Bush administration is gone, the practice of ignoring science in regulatory  rule making will decline.  With that decline the rules for BPL will get significantly tougher for the BPL folks.

 Look at the costs for BPL and you find that the cost is higher than the cost of wireless broadband using unlicensed frequencies in the 2.4 GHz range.  The cost is much higher than DSL.  BPL is only close to cost effective in higher density areas, hence current installations are in suburban areas not rural areas. 

UTC keeps promoting BPL for rural areas, but watch these co-ops carefully.  They will be putting their BPL into towns, not the lines out to the farmers.  It just costs too much.Unfortunately the equipment to be used in the IBEC system interferes with many shortwave radio transmissions (  This is a pity, because international shortwave radio, like TV and radio broadcasting in the US, is going digital (  People who live where BPL is installed won't be able to receive these transmissions, they'll all be jammed.

And then no one -- certainly not me :-) -- said Jeremy Taylor was a "crotchety old ham" but he did have this to say:



This announcement represents a major step forward in bringing broadband services to the residents of rural America."  Except that BPL is a pox [] on significant sections of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is a limited resource that needs to be managed very carefully, promoted by snake-oil salesmen who so far have failed[], even with all the touted 'opportunities' provided by the in-place power network over wide areas (etc), to actually make this a real option -- why? because it isn't very good (where 'good' means of acceptable performance to the market) []. It isn't only the ARRL and bunch of crotchety old hams that have a problem with this, HF spectrum is used by diverse organisations from FEMA to the military to scientific research to commercial communications to aircraft communications.



Thanks to everyone for your insight and comments.


Related Reading

More Insights

Currently we allow the following HTML tags in comments:

Single tags

These tags can be used alone and don't need an ending tag.

<br> Defines a single line break

<hr> Defines a horizontal line

Matching tags

These require an ending tag - e.g. <i>italic text</i>

<a> Defines an anchor

<b> Defines bold text

<big> Defines big text

<blockquote> Defines a long quotation

<caption> Defines a table caption

<cite> Defines a citation

<code> Defines computer code text

<em> Defines emphasized text

<fieldset> Defines a border around elements in a form

<h1> This is heading 1

<h2> This is heading 2

<h3> This is heading 3

<h4> This is heading 4

<h5> This is heading 5

<h6> This is heading 6

<i> Defines italic text

<p> Defines a paragraph

<pre> Defines preformatted text

<q> Defines a short quotation

<samp> Defines sample computer code text

<small> Defines small text

<span> Defines a section in a document

<s> Defines strikethrough text

<strike> Defines strikethrough text

<strong> Defines strong text

<sub> Defines subscripted text

<sup> Defines superscripted text

<u> Defines underlined text

Dr. Dobb's encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Dr. Dobb's moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing or spam. Dr. Dobb's further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | View the list of supported HTML tags you can use to style comments. | Please read our commenting policy.