Manassas Takes Over BPL From Private Company

fgentges at fgentges at
Fri Oct 17 15:37:23 CDT 2008

ARRL provided an excellent rundown on the latest with the Manassas
VA BPL system.  It looks like BPL cannot stand on its own business model 
and must require the government to subsidize it to keep this system running.

Whatever fancy business models presented by starry eyed MBAs seem to 
have not worked out.  Kinda like the subprime mortgage business. It does 
not make money.

The historical perspective by ARRL seems to suggest that BPL may not be 
the solution to the Internet delivery problem.  I note that the City of 
Manassas has approved Verizon's application for FIOS alongside their own 
BPL system.  I suspect Verizon has done the business analysis and will 
make a success of it both technically and financially.

Finally, we went over to Manassas on several occasions to measure the 
interference levels and found compliance with FCC Part 15 spotty at best 
and many cases of exceeding the levels.  Hams there were experiencing 
troublesome levels of interference and required a lot of work and 
coordination with the BPL people on each new stretch of line activation.

Frank K0BRA

 From ARRL Letter, 17 Oct 2008


Late last month, the Manassas, Virginia City Council voted 4-2 to assume
control of the Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) service from the private
company that serves approximately 675 residents. As a result of the
vote, the City of Manassas will now have to use monies from an
enterprise fund -- around $110,000, in addition to the approximately
$640,000 the city has already spent on BPL infrastructure -- to fund the
service and recoup the cost from the subscribers; monies in an
enterprise fund come from the utility's ratepayers. BPL technology uses
the electricity grid in a city and the wiring in individual homes to
provide direct "plug in" broadband access through electricity sockets,
rather than over phone or cable TV lines. Because BPL wiring is
physically large, often overhead and extends across entire communities,
these systems pose a significant interference potential to over-the-air
radio services, including Amateur Radio.

According to "BPL Today," "Manassas was the first city in the world to
have BPL deployed to all its residents and has been a demonstration
center for utilities, integrators/operators and government entities from
around the globe." It was in Manassas that then-FCC Chairman Michael
Powell and then-Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Chairman Pat
Wood announced completion of the FCC's BPL rules and FERC's support for
FCC jurisdiction over BPL before the October 2004 meeting at which the
BPL rules were finally adopted, prompting an ARRL complaint
<>. "BPL Today" is a
weekly journal for the BPL industry.

The City of Manassas launched a field trial to test out BPL technology
in July 2002; 15 months later, they awarded a 10 year franchise to
Prospect Street Broadband. This company agreed to expand the field trial
and offer high speed Internet service to the entire Manassas community
via power lines. In April 2004, the city terminated its contract with
Prospect Street and puts the contract out for rebidding. At this point,
the City of Manassas had spent $140,000 in BPL equipment to serve 200

In March of 2005, Manassas reported that it had signed up more than 200
customers for BPL services, with another 1300 on a waiting list.
Manassas officials said they "expect[ed] to spend [another] $500,000
enhancing its telecommunications and electrical infrastructure by the
time COMTek completes the installation [later that month]."

In October 2005, COMTek, based in Chantilly, Virginia, announced the
first city-wide BPL service in Manassas. According to COMTek, the City
of Manassas -- located 30 miles southwest of Washington, DC -- had the
potential for more than 12,000 residential and 2500 commercial
subscribers. In May 2006, Philadelphia-based GridPlex announced it would
acquire Manassas' BPL program from COMTek.

In May 2006, "BPL Today" reported that GridPlex had the goal of "growing
the deployment into a state-of-the-art smart grid including a wide range
of municipal applications such as electricity demand response, energy
and water conservation, security monitoring and many more." GridPlex
also announced plans to upgrade and modernize the network in Manassas,
including the provision of smart meters.

In July 2008, the Manassas City Council held a public hearing concerning
GridPlex's takeover of the BPL system. The Director of the City of
Manassas Utility Department, Mike Moon, told the council that the cost
for BPL services -- currently $28.95 per month -- could be lowered and
said GridPlex had plans to improve connection speeds. Moon did not give
a timetable for when the change would take place, but said subscribers
would be notified when it was to occur. No one at the hearing spoke in
favor or against the provider change.

Moon said that if GridPlex acquired COMTek, this would permit city
residents to utilize GridPlex's smart grid technology, allowing them to
tap into "cost effective, conservation encouraging technology."
Residents could keep track and control their consumption of water and
electricity on a daily basis. "We are in discussions with [GridPlex] on
using those services, but we're not to the point of making that final
decision," he said. "That's a $4-5 million project for us, so we have to
make sure it's the right company, the right business plan for the city."

At the Council meeting in September, Moon explained that GridPlex's
takeover of Manassas' BPL system -- scheduled for early August 2008 and
postponed many times -- would not occur. According to the meeting
minutes, "The inability of GridPlex to take over the COMTek franchise
has made it necessary for [Manassas] to assume the operation of the BPL
system and the current customer base, which consists of approximately
675 residents. The City must now purchase all assets owned by COMTek and
will then exercise a short-term service agreement to service existing
accounts." Speaking for Moon, Manassas' Utilities Deputy Director
(Electric) Gary Paulson told the ARRL that the cost of the assets
totaled approximately $110,000. "This includes all the hardware,
software and licenses needed to operate the BPL system," Paulson said.

Four members of the six member Council voted to take over the BPL
service. According to Kipp Hanley, a reporter for the "News and
Messenger" daily newspaper in Manassas, this means the city will have to
use a small percentage of its electric department reserve fund to pay
for the service for the next six months. After six months, Hanley told
the ARRL, it will be up to the Council if they want to include it in the
city budget.

One reason to keep the BPL technology, he said, is Advanced Metering
Infrastructure (AMI) via the smart grid, something that the Manassas
utility department has advocated. Moon said that his office is also
looking at other ways to carry AMI, such as wireless. This was put out
to bid in September 2008.

Manassas Vice Mayor Andy Harrover was one of the four who voted to take
over the service from COMTek. Harrover told the "News and Messenger" he
voted in the affirmative as a "common courtesy for those who use the
service and for the future of the AMI system," but said he has a
"fundamental problem" with the city providing Internet services. "The
philosophical question is should the city be in the Internet business
and the answer is no."

Councilman Jonathan Way was one of two members who voted against taking
over COMTek's services. "If we really feel compelled to compete, we
should do so with modern, fast and reliable technology," he told the
"News and Messenger." "The current operator of the BPL system cannot
make a go of it and wants out. There should be a lesson hiding somewhere
in that fact."

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