Manassas, Va., delivers broadband over power lines

A small Virginia city has apparently become the first in the country to deploy commercial high-speed Internet service via a municipality’s power grid.

About 12,500 Manassas households and 2,500 businesses now have the capability to use broadband-over-power-line (BPL) technology. Communication Technologies, a Chantilly, Va.-based telecommunications company, deployed the technology and acts as the city’s Internet service provider.

According to a press release, the company has signed up 700 customers and has 500 requests for the service.

“Make no mistake about it, what we are announcing today in Manassas is something that we could be rolling out in a year or two from now in literally scores of communities across the U.S.,” Joseph Fergus, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, said in the release. “The Manassas experiment is a good thing for every American who lives in any city or town with little or no access to affordable broadband.”

The announcement could be significant because BPL has been touted as a technology that could offer high-speed Internet access in remote or rural areas that telecom providers have generally shunned because the investment would be too great.

However, some groups oppose the technology because it could potentially interfere with radio transmissions. According to the American Radio Relay League, a national association of ham radio operators, the BPL systems “pose a significant interference potential to over-the-air radio services,” not only for amateur radio but for others as well.

Access BPL is a system that allows high-speed communications to be transmitted via aboveground and underground medium-voltage power lines to low-voltage residential and business sites, where the signal is converted using a modem or a Wi-Fi system. The technology essentially transmits radio frequency waves, which carry the data via electric power lines. Because the current and radio waves are on different frequencies, there is no interference between the two.

Manassas city workers installed BPL couplers and repeaters along the city’s electrical grid and maintain fiber connections linking Communication Technologies’ servers and routers to the power lines. In 2004, the city selected the company to own and manage the system. The city gets a portion of subscriber revenues to offset manpower and equipment resources for installing the BPL technology.

Additionally, the system could allow the city to save money by enabling it to identify and repair outages faster. The city also plans to use the technology for advanced applications, such as automatic distribution switching, which would restore power quickly to the subgrid after outages.

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