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Net Over Power Lines Irks Amateur Radio Lovers

By Peter Svensson, The Associated Press

George Tarnovsky can hear the Internet as he drives down Main Street in Manassas, Va., a rapid rattle emanating from the ham radio in his Chevy Tahoe.

"Suddenly you hear this incredible signal," Tarnovsky said.

The radio interference, which can resemble rapid clicks or the whine of a phone-line modem, comes from a system that provides high-speed Internet access to about 1,000 Manassas customers through their power lines. The interference makes ham radio all but impossible in the Washington, D.C., suburb, Tarnovsky said.

But in this fight of old and new, it appears that the old — ham radio has been around for a century — will be left standing. Broadband over power line, or BPL, is in danger of becoming an also-ran in the race to bring broadband Internet to the American home, even as it's overcoming some technical hurdles.

BPL is an attractive idea because of the power grid's ubiquity. It has been touted as a "third wire" into the home, a possible competitor to broadband via cable and telephone wires — and a way to bring high-speed service to rural areas underserved by cable and phone companies.

However, most of the utilities that have tried it have backed away, largely because of skepticism about the economic viability of the technology in the face of competition.

BPL hasn't lived up to its early promise as a rural broadband alternative, either, because of a technical quirk that is also the source of the ham radio frustrations. For broadband, a radio-frequency signal is applied to the power line, much like a high-frequency signal is applied to phone lines to create a digital subscriber line, or DSL.

But unlike phone and cable wires, power lines that run above ground can act as large radio antennas, emitting the high-frequency signal as radio waves. According to the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), the national ham radio association, radio waves from an improperly designed system can drown out amateur radio within a quarter of a mile.

The antenna nature of the line also means the signal loses its energy quickly, while the line picks up radio noise from the surroundings. A long line running in a rural area needs amplifiers at short intervals, adding to the costs; even so, the signal gets lost after a few miles. The operator of the Manassas broadband system, Communication Technologies, or ComTek, said it has made adjustments to minimize interference.

Tarnovsky lives five miles outside the town, but to him, that's no excuse for interfering with ham radio bands. He said the Internet signal threatens the communications services that ham radio operators can provide from their cars in emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina. "If we see interference, regardless of where it is, we have to report it to the FCC," he said.

The Federal Communications Commission has generally spoken warmly about BPL's potential, but this month, after two years of complaints from ham radio operators, the FCC told Manassas to eliminate any harmful interference.

Nonetheless, some companies are pushing forward, and some variants of the technology now get the thumbs-up from the national ham radio group. The ARRL is optimistic about trials conducted with Motorola's BPL technology, which uses only the short line from the nearest transformer to the home, using wireless links in place of the interference-causing long lines.

It also has no problem with the USA's other major commercial BPL deployment, in Cincinnati, which uses a different technology. There, local utility Cinergy formed a joint venture with Current Communications of Germantown, Md., to sell broadband for $30 a month. It's available to about 50,000 homes, but officials won't say how many have signed up.

Current is starting this year on a much larger deployment with utility TXU, covering 2 million homes in Texas, mainly in the Dallas area. It will use the next generation of its technology, allowing speeds up to 10 megabits per second, 10 times as fast as Cincinnati's and faster than most cable and DSL broadband links.

For the hams, though, it's still too early to heave a sigh of relief. They say BPL systems that interfere with their bands are still allowed under FCC rules. They want tougher regulations now that non-interfering technologies such as Current's and Motorola's are available.