Pulling the plug
In April, Manassas, Va., decided to end the broadband-over-power-line (BPL) service it had offered residents for a year a half. BPL allows users to access the Internet through the electrical grid for low cost. American City & County spoke with Gregg Paulson, Manassas' deputy director of Electric Utilities, about the project's history and the decision to end the BPL service.
Q: Why did the city begin offering broadband service over power lines?
A: [The city] was exploring options for providing Internet services to customers, and they chose the BPL network around 2000. The main driver was we just didn't have broadband available from the local telecom companies like Comcast or Verizon. 'A They weren't offering it at the time, so everybody had dialup.
Q: What led to the decision to end the service?
A: [Initially,] the city really didn't provide the service; it was a third party franchise that provided the service. There was a revenue share agreement between the city and [the third party,] COMTek, and COMTek was basically using our power lines to provide the service to customers. About a year and a half ago, COMTek said they really couldn't continue it as a business case, and they made an offer to the city to take over the system for pennies on the dollar. So, the city acquired the system for about $150,000. Of course, there was a debate in city council [on] whether providing Internet service was a business function that the utilities should be in, so the council was divided on that. But, after [about] a year of the city operating the system, we were actually realizing [a] $160,000 [annual] deficit. That was our primary driver to discontinue the service. It just wasn't a good business plan for Manassas.
Q: Are there plans for a new city-run service to replace BPL?
A: There is not at this time. I think the governing board believes there is adequate service between the cable company and the phone company. Comcast and Verizon both rolled out a business plan and installed equipment here in Manassas to provide Internet service to customers, and that was one of the primary competitors [with the city's BPL service.] They were offering greater speeds at, I guess, a reasonable price. And so our customer base kind of deteriorated at that point. We went from about 650 customers to a little over 500 over about a year and a half.
Q: Is BPL still a viable option to provide broadband service in some areas?
A: BPL does have potential for specific areas that are not served or [are] underserved by cable and phone companies. [That would be] mainly in rural areas of the U.S. and in other countries.