Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Why are we giving BPL all this coverage?


By David Gewirtz

By now, everyone who regularly reads Computing Unplugged has noticed that our summer editorial schedule has been devoted to a single topic. We've been devoting our article-level coverage to a single, apparently obscure topic called broadband-over-powerline, otherwise known as BPL.

Normally, in Computing Unplugged, you'll see coverage of everything from PDAs to robots, WiFi to hi-fi. But this summer, we've run article after article on BPL. It's not that big a topic. So why are we giving it so much space?

When readers speak, we listen

The answer to that question has a number of elements. First, we're giving it so much more coverage because so many of you asked us to. Computing Unplugged readers are a very special bunch. On a yearly basis, we reach more readers than Fortune and Vogue. Many of you are technology enthusiasts. Many more of you are not only enthusiasts, but towering experts as well. When we run some editorial that generates a blistering response from our readers, we listen.

"... willing to look at, and print, both sides. Fair reporting at its best."

When we first ran our interview a few weeks ago with Chano Gomez on BPL, we got a firestorm of reader response. You informed us that there was a very big controversy in an area we didn't know had any problems at all. At first, we got the usual crackpot letters. But then, as a few hours passed, we got long, well-considered, and extremely detailed letters educating us on the debate.

There is, without a doubt, a debate. On one side seem to be the ham radio operators, who are nearly all radio frequency technical experts as well as hobbyists. On the other side is the BPL industry, presenting offerings that could be very important to developing countries and helpful to those of us in the U.S.

The hams say BPL can both damage the radio spectrum and be damaged by it. The industry reps we've talked to say that was old tech -- the new stuff is better. As you'll see in our continuing coverage over the next few weeks, we honestly can't tell whether BPL is a good thing, or something that should be stopped in its tracks.

Worrisome items in the pages of an FCC report

In researching this, we found FCC 04-245, a Federal Communications Commission Report and Order, which had some encouraging things to say about the safety of BPL. But in the pages of the Report and Order were some curiously worrisome items as well. For example, the Society of Broadcast Engineers asserts that BPL operations could adversely affect Emergency Alert System (EAS) transmissions.