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New broadband technologies can connect even the most remote places

MADISON - There are no shortage of isolated spots in Wisconsin, and Washington Island is high on the seclusion list. Located about seven miles off the tip of Door County, where the waters of Green Bay meet those of Lake Michigan, the 30-square-mile island is accessible by boat, car ferry and two grassy landing strips.

But if you need broadband Internet service once you wind your way to Washington Island, you can likely find it there.

Washington Island is home to Wisconsin's first known example of “broadband over power line” communications, which is technology that can transmit high-speed Internet service over electrical power lines to a full range of customers. It was installed through a deal between IBM, a worldwide provider of information technology hardware, software and business services, and the tiny Washington Island Electric Co-op. The project is an example of how high-speed Internet can reach even the hardest-to-reach places, economically and reliably, and link those places to the global economy.

A recent presentation by Raymond Blair, IBM's director of advanced networks, to the Wisconsin Technology Council board of directors underscored how changing technology - and help from the federal stimulus bill - can bring broadband to parts of rural Wisconsin where costs are otherwise too high.

“Broadband over power line technology can get people off dial-up Internet access at a cost-effective rate,” said Blair, who discussed how IBM is deploying the technology in states such as Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia, as well as nations in Latin America, eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent.
The technology has been around for a few years, but it typically hasn't been able to offer enough capacity at a low enough price to beat traditional cable or phone service. The federal stimulus bill, which includes $7.2 billion to bring broadband to rural America and other hard-to-access places, may have changed that.

“It's not enough to bring Internet service to everyone,” Blair said of the federal stimulus dollars, “but it can make a dent. Yes, this (stimulus bill) has accelerated the deployment of broadband.”

Blair said broadband-over-power-line technology makes the most economic sense in the least populated places, where there might be a dozen or so customers per mile of line. The service is slower than what's available through cable and phone, but it's 10 times faster than dial-up service.

A video produced by IBM noted that Washington Island Electric Co-op has 238 broadband subscribers plus the island's public buildings. It quoted one island resident, a business consultant, who said his new broadband connection “allows me to live and work in the same place.”

Blair noted that small electric cooperatives such as the Washington Island co-op serve 12 percent of the nation's population but hold 45 percent of its power lines, making them natural partners for a broadband service. It's a way to provide what used to be “nice to have” Internet service to parts of rural Wisconsin where such connections might now be in the “got to have” category for economic development.

Meanwhile, other companies continue to provide new wireless solutions, as well. AT&T announced last week it will add 50 cell sites in Wisconsin this year and expand its 3G wireless broadband network. A company spokesman said total capital investment by AT&T in Wisconsin exceeded $1 billion in the past three years, and the latest plans are designed to “build the broadband networks that will create jobs and fuel economic growth” while helping AT&T's customers.

Cost-effective broadband access is vital to the economic future of rural Wisconsin, whether it's on Washington Island or in small North Woods communities. In today's global economy, few places can afford to be a communications island.

Recent articles by Tom Still:

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council which will host the seventh Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference June 9-10 in Milwaukee. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Nate responded 6 years ago: #1

I think you should talk to the island residents about the service, it is my understanding that not everyone can get service. And for the record service was available to a good portion of the island before this service came via high speed fixed wireless for years before BPL was put installed, and that was done without government money.

Robert Cornell responded 6 years ago: #2

As the manager of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, I thought that it would be important to point out a couple of errors and ommissions in your article and these really should be corrected. First: IBM played no (0)role in the aquisition or installation of the BPL system on Washington Island. Both your article and the video make it appear as if they did. The system was installed as a cooperative effort between International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) and the Washington Island Electric Coopertive, Inc after IBEC was approved for a Rural Utility Service (RUS) loan. IBM's role on Washington Island has been to use our network as a test site for smart grid technology and automated meter reading. They came on the scene after the BPL network was fully deployed. In fact, IBM's role in all the other deployments mentioned is that of a contracted service for IBEC. I write this note, not to downgrade IBM's future role in the deployment of BPL technology, or as an advertisement for IBEC but to give credit where credit is due. That credit is due IBEC. Without them, the Washington Island Electric Cooperative would likely still be looking for a suitable technology with the tangible and intangible benefits that BPL provides the Coopertive and its members. It is also important to note that thanks to IBEC, the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Inc is the first (and currently the only) utility in the world with a fully deployed BPL system. Sometimes big corporations such as IBM forget that it usually is the little guy that has the good ideas that they are able to take advantage of. Thanks for making this important correction.

Robert B. Cornell
Manager, Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Inc

Steve responded 6 years ago: #3

There are a few other research errors that have crept in

- the Washington Island is not Wisconsin's first BPL installation. (Check out the RUS and other BPL websites)

- DCWIS had a privately financed Motorola Canopy High Speed Internet system available for the greater part of the island for a couple years. The Washington Island Electrical Co-op was itself a subscriber to this service when it applied for its subsidized loan. RUS ignored this venture to fund the BPL project.

- The BPL project has additional options of High Speed Satellite (which is not considered a decision influencer by RUS) and Wireless Cellular Carrier Internet as competitors.

- The Washington Island Electrical Co-op is subsidizing the BPL project by assessing their electrical customers (the 2009 cost beyond revenue for BPL are listed at $75,000 in their annual report).

- It is nonsense to claim that the Washington Island Electrical Cooperative is the first and only utility in the world with a fully deployed BPL system. (Again a bit of Google-Time will cover that misstatement).

In summary the cooperative has chosen to venture forward with one of the slower Broadband technologies using taxpayer subsidized loans fully knowing that the project could still never be self-sustaining, all despite well knowing their cliental was served by a mature true High Speed Wireless system.

Not only is it wishful thinking economically but they have saddled the island with yesterday's technology.

Steve responded 6 years ago: #4

A phone call reminded me BPL is consuming one of every twenty dollars spent with the Electrical Co-Op as a cross subsidy from Power-Only customers to the BPL & Power customers.

Time will not be kinder to BPL as even as an unbilled "free offering" as many Islanders chose to pay for true High Speed with one of the other carriers.

Ongoing costs aside, the Co-Op has taken on a considerable mortgage that will take decades to retire at the 5% levy on other services.
Yesterday's technology with Tomorrow's dollars is a pretty unattractive future for this BPL project.

Tom Still responded 6 years ago: #5

My recent column on broadband over power line access on Washington Island was aimed at showing the potential for such technology in rural Wisconsin but confused the relationship between IBM and the Washington Island Electric Co-op. IBM’s work on the island is focused on “smart grid” technologies. IBM is overseeing broadband-over-power line deployments in other states in collaboration with International Broadband Electric Communications, or IBEC, which is working on Washington Island and elsewhere. The bottom line is good news for Washington Island: Many people are working to improve the island’s communications and power infrastructure, which makes it a more attractive place to live, work and recreate.

Chuck Olson, WB9KZY responded 6 years ago: #6

The major problem with BPL not mentioned in the article is interference. BPL is an unlicensed user of the High Frequency (HF) radio spectrum. BPL is predicated on interfering with other often licensed users of radio. Anyone who listens to short wave or has a CB radio will experience increased interference when BPL starts up.

In addition because BPL is deployed in rural, low signal strength areas, BPL will affect low VHF (Very High Frequency) such as television channels 2 to 6. I first realized that BPL was lit up when trying to watch the Packer-Bear game last December on Channel 2 (Green Bay). It obliterates the sound and the picture is obscured with white horizontal noise bars.

Unfortunately, the FCC has decided not to enforce its own rules on part 15 and has even lowered the bar in deference to BPL.

And, unlike a CBer, Ham radio operator or a neighbor with a woodshop router, BPL is on 24/7/365. It is always interfering. There is no human readable ID of BPL either, other users of the HF Spectrum have to
identify themselves periodically but not BPL.

Also, as a part 15 (unlicensed) user of that radio spectrum, BPL is subject to interference from any licensed users AND from other sources such as sparking electric motors, cars or other internal combustion motors with bad ignition systems, even the power poles themselves may create noise from unwanted electrical discharge.

Steve responded 6 years ago: #7

One area not addressed in most BPL discussion is the Radio Frequency pollution and interference the system tends to cause.

Another phone call passed on that the Washington Island system has been subject to constant work to address interference issues to FCC licensed operations, and has shown a tendency to loose it's memory of the corrective "notching" programming changes that have been made.

It appears that the Co-Op has not even purchased the test equipment to physically verify that their BPL system is in compliance with the operational FCC license and has no idea if they are blanking out or interfering with Emergency Service Communications, Broadcast Services or Two-Way licensed communications.

The Stakeholders in the Washington Island Electrical Co-Op really were given a good spin of "bait & switch" when the promoted "Grant" suddenly became a huge Mortgage.

Will this multi-million dollar investment to provide an alternative to existing commercial High Speed Internet on the island ever pay off? The Co-Op's released numbers offer no possibility for recovery of the investment. None, never.

How did the Co-op end up encumbered with new massive debt for such a speculative venture without Cop-Op membership approval? Why should Power-Only clients subsidize this rash venture?

The IBM potential for line monitoring is off in the future - a potential and not even a promise - again without any statement of what the additional investment needed would be or cost impact.

The Co-Op has claimed they could reduce employment and therefor costs through the project, but is this socially desirable on an Island with chronic unemployment problems? And it would appear that that jobs may have been simply moved off-island to support personnel on the mainland.

The Co-op announced their intention to be a quasi-public competitor for the Island high speed internet market several years before they had any possibility of implementing a BPL system, arguably stifling private investment in Island High Speed Internet and without question delaying the deployment of non-Satellite Island High Speed internet by years.

Socially questionable, financially irresponsible and technically naive, this project has condemned the Island to paying off a huge debt for a duplication of services already available.

Again simply put "Yesterday's technology with Tomorrow's dollars."

Steve responded 6 years ago: #8

In todays worldwide news is the Australian Government's decision to abandon its BPL projects for cost, speed and interference problems in favor of Fiber Optic.

Japan has previously not only withdrawn support for its BPL projects, but canceled all BPL transmission licenses, effectively outlawing BPL, based off the Emergency Communications impact of BPL.

Kenn Myer responded 6 years ago: #9

BPL, Or "Broadband over Power Lines" is nothing but one huge fiasco, And waste of taxpayer money.
It is too bad the folks on Washington Island did not do their homework to see how other systems (Don't) work.
There have been a number of large systems installed around the country, Most of which are now shut down.

Electric power lines were designed to carry 60 cycle AC power, NOT RF (Radio Frequency) signals.
As someone else pointed out, The power grid is simply a huge antenna that allows those "BPL" signals to pollute the area with unwanted RF energy that interferes with other radio services. A proven fact is that the BPL system WILL raise the RF "noise floor" in an area, Thereby making radio systems like public safety Police, Fire, Ambulance, Business band radios, Homeowner reception of plain off air television and radio, etc. poorer.
AND other transmitters, (Like those same police, fire, etc) WILL interfere with your BPL internet connection!

What DOES work well for broadband service is a fiberoptic "Backbone" through an area with a number of wireless access points connected, If the population is so rural that fiber cannot be run to each home.

Hearing the drift out of Washington DC, There is little question that there will be funding for broadband systems.

I only hope they build GOOD ones using fiber, Coaxial cable, Or the wireless access points and do NOT waste good money on the failed BPL scheme.

But now that IBM seems to have invested in this failed technology, Who knows what they might try to cram down the throats of unsuspecting taxpayers.

Results in Dallas, Texas:

Scott responded 6 years ago: #10

The idea that BPL is a reliable and cost smart implementation for high speed internet is absurd. As a resident of the island for five years and a contractor for NewWis for approx two and a half, I can truthfully tell you that TRUE highspeed internet was available on the island long before IBEC even looked at implementing their system.

My take on the BPL deployment is simple. What started as an idea became a battle to make an offering to a community before the other provider could gain enough coverage to force the RUS from granting the funds. The WIEC basically was loaned millions of dollars to implement a system that is antiquated and barely embraced. I have travelled to many places and have yet to see BPL being used anywhere. The true rural ISP offers service through WiMax and Canopy solutions. As a Montana resident I have seen all forms of wireless infrastructures residing in deep canyons, steep mountainsides, forested expanses and massive valleys. Not once have I heard of any BPL offerings.

The WIEC BPL project is just another way to dig into the pockets of island residents. Anyone who thinks the system was free is a fool. Instead of dicking around with old technology, the WIEC would have been better off looking into other solutions that were litterally hanging 30 feet above their office.

Robert is a great guy and his staff is incredible, but somewhere around 2005 someone lost their mind and allowed some bad decisions to be made and now the people will pay.

Steve responded 6 years ago: #11

The big question now is how does the community of Washington Island get out from under the BPL debt and the BPL technology problems?

When the Island system finishes its "Free Offer" of no-charge BPL the real economic impact from inability to recover costs will become more acute.

The liability taken on is stunning - knowing that the system grossly interferes with Emergency Communications let's hope there is no property loss, or human loss made worse or caused by the BPL system blanking out the Emergency Communications we all depend upon. Specially as the Co-Op has economized by not having the appropriate test gear in use, and has chosen as a default to allow the interference rather than having default being maximum notching, one could speculate that their could be not limit to the liability exposure.

The illegal interference to Broadcast and Licensed FCC services other commenters and correspondents mention may be less critical, but they are no different than if the Co-Op suddenly decided to constantly park its trucks across your driveway - it is wrong, illegal and the Co-Op eventually would be forced to either bring the system into compliance or cease operations.

The BPL technology has some other weaknesses. Unlike the DCWIS Motorola Canopy High Speed Wireless which arrives on the Island by a pair of very high speed wireless links with the mainland, the BPL system requires that the full Utility infrastructure be operational before Internet can be delivered.

The BPL Internet arrives by submarine cable and is brought through the on-Island telephone switching building. Both must be in operation to get the Internet to the Co-Op.

At that point the Island Electrical grid needs to be running, stable and in-place from the Co-Op to the end server. If a tree drops on the power line, as they so often do on this wooded Island, putting your home network up on a generator will not bring back the internet as it often can with the Motorola System and usually does with the Satellite & Cellular Internets systems. Rather you loose not only power, but your internet.

With so many people going towards VoIP (Internet Phone Service) and TV/Entertainment delivered by Internet, this combined loss of power & BPL could also cut a site's phone & TV services.

To be fair with the low delivered speed and the on-going lack of reliability it is really not very likely that an Island resident could depend on the BPL service for Internet Phone and Internet TV services without backup.

Given the technological limitations, and the huge unrecoverable economic burden to the Island, Islanders would be well served to investigate if their is a way to get rid of this disastrous project in total.

Can the Island BPL mitigate the technological limitation and interference issues? Perhaps partially, but unlikely. In the end the slow throughput alone will obsolete this BPL installation.

Can the financial burden be lifted? Here there is more hope. It will not be pretty, but there are so many problems with how this project came into being ranging from the Co-Op management misleading the membership on everything from the basics of whether it was Grant or Mortgages on offer, to not obtaining membership approval, not the RUS program illegally ignoring existing Broadband providers & playing administrative games removing their responsibility to do the legally required research, to IBEC's incestuous relationship as a technology vendor applying for loan's for its customers.

It is time for the Island Electrical-Only Co-Op customer to "cry foul" and put a stop to the levy to cross subsidize the BPL fiasco.

It is also time to put a stop of the use of Government Money to go into competition against established Private Enterprise, both through the RUS monies, the on-going operational subsidies and the Free-Internet offering.

If a private firm were to do this - to provide goods below costs in am effort to push out other competitors - they would be held to task.

IBEC looks for organizations like the Co-Op, who through quirks of history & law are not subject to Public Service Commission (PSC) oversight, until they find a group foolish enough to "take the bait" and but into their technology.

The back-room decisions and future financial burden of this Co-Op venturing off into a new business, being vendor-led into disaster, speaks to those who would bring the Co-Op under PSC oversight.

As for expanding the BPL experiment anywhere else in Wisconsin, it is economically difficult to possibly justify any further adoptment of an obsolete technology with no hope of cost recovery.

The Washington Island mistake of Yesterday's technology with Tomorrow's dollars" does not need to be repeated.

Jim responded 3 years ago: #12

They just announced that as of January 16th,2012 they will not longer be operating the BPL system. I think that says it all.

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