PLT Adjournment Debate - House of Commons - 18th May 2011
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Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): It is a pleasure to introduce this timely and important debate in the House. Hon. Members who are intrigued by the title will perhaps read the first paragraph, so I should sum up the debate by highlighting my concern, and that of many organisations: Ofcom, and indeed successive Governments, have adopted a reactive approach to the increasing interference from power line technology devices. We urge the Government to take a more proactive approach.
The area that I represent could be deemed to be the home of radio communication. Milton Keynes, which includes the famous code breakers’ base Bletchley Park, was integral in intercepting enemy messages during the Second World War. The city is surrounded by listening stations—one of which, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Hanslope Park, continues to protect our country to this day.
Radio is paramount not just in preserving national security; nor is it merely the preserve of outposts around Milton Keynes. Across the world, such technology remains essential to all communication. The spectrum is invaluable in so many ways: to television, radio, mobile phones, the emergency services, the military and security services, hospital pagers, pilots’ landing systems, and many more.
Shortwave radio has proven time and again to be a vital back-up when other communication systems crash in the aftermath of natural disasters or terrorist attacks. For example, radio was used in the immediate aftermath of the attack on New York on 9/11, and in 2005 radio was used to co-ordinate the relief effort following Hurricane Katrina. However, there are fears that the efficiency of radio communication is being jeopardised by the development of new technologies, specifically those known as power line telecommunication devices. PLTs use a home’s mains electricity wiring to route Internet and television around a household without using a data cable. As electricity wiring was not designed to carry radio signals, an unwanted by-product—interference—is emitted. That rasping hiss has the power severely to disrupt radio communication.
GCHQ, the BBC, the Civil Aviation Authority and even NATO are some of the bodies that have spoken out about PLTs’ power to interfere with, and therefore impede, their highly essential work. We and our constituents might never have heard of PLTs or the noise they emit, but every single one of us is affected by, and relies on, radio, so this debate is relevant to us all.
As I said, PLT devices use the radio spectrum to send data signals via mains electricity supplies, and tend to come in the form of large mains plugs that can share the Internet between computers or high-definition television between rooms, providing an alternative to lots of cables in the home. Most commonly they are provided by BT Vision packages, and it is estimated by the regulator Ofcom that there are about 1.8 million pairs of the equipment in use. In fact, the UK is one of the biggest users of in-home PLT devices in Europe. As mains wiring was not designed for carrying radio signals, PLTs cause it to leak radio signals into the air. All appliances leak interference to some extent, but when electric wiring is used to carry broadband, the levels of interference become a significant problem.
I have met constituents who are experts in the field. They can walk down the street with a radio and pinpoint which households are using PLT devices just from the noise emanating from the buildings. We are talking about the pollution of the 21st century. In previous centuries, we have fought smog with campaigns for clean air, and now we are seeing a battle for clean airwaves. My constituents are not alone in their concerns. As I said, there is a chorus of consensus on this issue. The Civil Aviation Authority has expressed concerns about the threat posed to its instrument landing systems. One briefing note states: "The CAA is concerned that interference originating from the legitimate operation of PLT could adversely impact aeronautical critical systems. Furthermore, it appears that should this occur, it may not be possible to resolve in a timely and safe manner."
Even if the effects of the PLT are mitigated—I will come to that later—the probability of interference is reduced to 1%, which might sound low, but in aeronautical terms it is still a significant safety risk. The threat posed to aircraft safety by radio interference has been taken very seriously in the past. For example, in October 2009, in my neighbouring constituency of South West Bedfordshire, Ofcom paid a visit to 12-year-old Nickie Chamberlain in Leighton Buzzard. His TV booster aerial, which was faulty, was emitting interference that caused pilots at nearby Luton airport to complain. Ofcom acted quickly.
Even NATO has investigated the effects of PLTs on its equipment. One report states that the noise coming from PLT devices "has the potential to cause problems for military HF (high frequency) radio communications and communication intelligence in all NATO countries".
The Radio Society of Great Britain has been highlighting concerns about PLTs’ unwanted noise for 10 years. It clearly states that "it will not be possible to recover the damage done to the spectrum unless action is taken very quickly", and that this "invaluable natural resource"—the spectrum—"is being consigned to history".
The BBC has also commissioned investigations into the effects of PLT devices. The most recent, published in March, described the "tearing" sound of the PLT, which at best was annoying and at worst made a broadcast programme incomprehensible.
However, the most damning indictment so far has come from GCHQ, which deemed PLTs "likely to cause a detrimental effect to part of the core business of this Department."
In a statement issued on 10 March, it concurred with others’ view that the interference from these devices "was likely to pose a safety of life risk". It concluded that PLTs "should not be available for sale/use within the EU". However, when I asked, in a written question, for the Minister’s opinion on that statement, I was informed that it had, intriguingly, been withdrawn. Just as PLTs have an odd effect on surrounding radios, the issue has had a curious effect on the associated authorities. GCHQ, as I said, expressed an unequivocal stance on the issue, but then withdrew it. Ofcom, too, is behaving rather strangely.
All electronic devices must adhere to the essential requirements—the Electromagnetic Compatibility Regulations 2006—which are based on the European electromagnetic compatibility directive. Ofcom was advised in a report it commissioned by ERA Technology in September 2008 that: "It is considered that the Ethernet Power Line Adaptors do not meet the Essential Requirements of the EMC Directive; emissions could potentially cause interference to communications equipment." However, Ofcom maintains that PLTs are not in breach, because it has investigated 227 complaints, and all but one have been resolved by BT engineers. There are, however, many problems with this methodology. First, these are isolated cases and small-scale investigations. However, the report bases findings on results from scientific experiments in the controlled conditions of electromagnetic compatibility test laboratories. Secondly, as I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will agree, complaints tend to represent the tip of the iceberg. If one receives 10 complaints about an issue, they are likely to be indicative of scores of other qualms. Thirdly, what has happened shows that Ofcom is taking a reactive and not a proactive approach. Rather than heeding its own commission’s report, which says that PLTs do not comply with the directive, and then seeking out breaches, it is relying on people to approach the regulator. Why is Ofcom judging PLTs’ compliance not by the results of scientific experiments, but by the number of complaints that it has received? What other industry would prove the regulatory compliance of its products in that way?
The crucial point for my constituents is that Ofcom says that there are no relevant standards when it comes to PLTs and that it is waiting for the EU to formulate a "harmonised standard". The Minister recently told me in answer to a parliamentary question: "The Regulations do not set specific levels of interference".—[Official Report, 10 March 2011; Vol. 527, c. 1199W.]
However, there is a standard: EN 55022, which is listed under the EU electromagnetic compatibility directive—or EMC directive—for controlling interference from data communication products such as PLTs.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman has mentioned health and safety on a number of occasions in his presentation to the House this evening. Does he see local government as having an enforcement role in responding to health and safety issues?
Mark Lancaster: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that perhaps the Minister will address when he winds up.
The EN 55022 standard includes a threshold that has been agreed internationally for decades, and the ERA test report said that PLTs exceeded it. In fact, the acceptable level of interference was surpassed by 30dB. I am told that that equates to 1,000 times the interference power that any other domestic product is permitted. Why are we waiting for a new standard when there is already one in place?
Another problem is that Ofcom is basing its stance on the current situation, not future projections. However, the interference caused by PLTs is set to get worse, for various reasons. First, more and more people will sign up for television and Internet packages that use PLTs, which are set to figure highly in the YouView package due to be launched next year. One report, which I will discuss shortly, estimates that the number of PLT users per square kilometre will increase from 159 in 2010 to a massive 703 in 2020. Secondly, as different PLT manufacturers compete to provide better services the interference will get worse, because they will be using a greater part of the spectrum. They are already veering into the very high frequency range, which has reportedly increased interference. Thirdly, PLT devices are being discussed as a way of communicating information about energy usage as part of smart grid technology, or as a way of providing data-linking between appliances around a house.
Ofcom’s stance on PLT devices is also at variance with the conclusions of a report that it commissioned PA Consulting Group to undertake in June 2010. Ofcom claims that the current situation is acceptable because there are fewer complaints, in spite of a higher uptake of PLT units. Conversely, however, the PA report said: "there will be a high probability of interference to some existing spectrum users…if PLT device features do not change from those currently implemented". PA recommends that in future, inference will be staved off only if devices are manufactured with mitigating features such as power control. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether that has been put in place. PA also says: "notches in the VHF aeronautical radio navigation bands should be mandated".
Does the Minister know whether that has taken place? If mitigation is so essential, what does Ofcom propose to do about devices that are already in use—the ones that are circulated second hand or manufactured abroad, none of which will have mitigating technology? The PA report warns: "it should not be assumed that the existing installed base is traceable or could be updated to incorporate these features". Moreover, what investigations have taken place into the efficacy of notching, considering that it is disputed whether this technique actually works? The Radio Society of Great Britain says that these technologies are "unproven" and that "in the home their effectiveness in reducing interference to radio services will be much reduced".
I would like to know whether the Minister has liaised with his colleagues heading up the excellent Digital Britain initiative. The current fibre-to-the-cabinet broadband upgrades that are being rolled out—some in my constituency, which is very welcome—share part of the same spectrum as PLTs. A report by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute showed that PLTs can interfere with this new technology. BT may well be rolling out products that do not work alongside each other.
The problem is not without precedent. Every time a new technology is introduced, it impacts on existing technology, not least in the world of radio communications. In the early 1890s, spark transmitter radios were all the rage, until the cacophony became overpowering and legislation had to be introduced. Fifty years later, when cars and televisions were new and exciting inventions, people’s television pictures could be distorted by the spark plugs of a passing car. Soon after, suppressors were introduced for all cars.
In 2011 we are replete with electronic devices. We want to do everything faster, and simultaneously. We want to watch our high-definition televisions while surfing the net and using our smart phones. The radio waves are crowded, competing with one another. We have an electromagnetic compatibility directive that has hitherto kept interference in check. The Department says that the directive does not specify acceptable interference levels, but the standards that it lists do, and experts in the field have been using them for many decades. The aforementioned ERA report shows that PLTs inherently breach that threshold.
Ofcom seems to place great importance on the fact that the complaints have been received from users of shortwave broadcasts and hobby radio users, but the security services can pick up the shortwave broadcasts of terrorists, pilots use shortwave broadcasts to help them to land their aircraft, and ships have sent distress signals half way across the world using these frequencies. We need to clear the way for such essential radio messages to be made or traced, and not allow their paths to be blocked by radio pollution.
Will the Minister acknowledge that this is an issue of great concern? Will he promise to base his stance on PLTs not merely on the number of current complaints, but on the results of scientific experiments, on the conclusions of expert reports based on well-established interference limits, on the strength of feeling from experts in the field, and on the projections for the future number and usage of these devices? Will he also instigate some form of market surveillance? Instead of reacting only to individual complaints, will he initiate a holistic assessment of the proliferation of PLTs? Will he reconsider the fact that there are thresholds in place for interference, and that PLTs currently do not meet those standards? Finally, will he liaise with other Departments to press for category 5 broadband cables to be installed in all new homes as standard? This whole issue strikes me as a result of short-termism, with homes having to be retrofitted with technology. There is no reason why we should not plan ahead and create a suitable data infrastructure, rather than continuing with unsuitable piggybacking on existing technology.
The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mark Prisk): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) not only on securing this important debate but on his highly informed speech. I will try to respond to the specific points that he has raised, but perhaps it might help the House if I first set out some background on power line technology products, the Government’s policy on this matter and the potential impact for the radio spectrum.
The main applications of power line technology are in home networking—we are all familiar with local area networks—as well as smart metering, with which we are becoming increasingly familiar, and home automation. This is a global technology, responding to consumer demand, and we see it being used not only here in the UK but in the rest of Europe, in the United States and in Australia. The use of PLT enables the increased delivery of digital services, including broadband access, smart metering, and television services from companies such as BT. One of the practical benefits of PLT is that it frees the user from a fixed location.
It is acknowledged that as PLT moves to higher frequencies, above 30 MHz, there is increased potential for interference, although as my hon. Friend pointed out, this is the case not just with PLT but with a wide variety of new and emerging electronic systems. Experiments by the BBC indicate there is some potential for localised interference. In practice, however, the evidence from people using the devices suggests that this problem is negligible. There are 1.8 million devices in service in the UK, but the number of complaints has been confined to a couple of hundred over the past three years. I shall turn to those in a moment. It is worth bearing in mind that those complaints are centred on a specific group of users, principally hobby radio amateurs, including those using citizens’ band radio. That is not to say that this group is not important, but it suggests that the nature of the problem is confined. The experience in the UK is reflected elsewhere. For example, following complaints in Germany, the authorities investigated the situation, but declined to ban any products. In Austria, following a product challenge brought by the official regulator, the courts rejected the claim of non-conformity.
In common with most electronic products sold in the UK, power line technology equipment is required to comply with the Electromagnetic Compatibility Regulations 2006, which are based on the European electromagnetic compatibility directive of 2004. The essential requirements, which I know the House will want to understand, are that PLT equipment, to quote that regulation, "shall be designed and manufactured, having regard to the state of the art and good engineering practice, so as to ensure that the electromagnetic disturbance generated does not exceed the level above which radio and telecommunications equipment or other equipment cannot operate as intended."
The current regulations, as we have heard, do not set specific levels of interference; rather, they set objectives to ensure that properly designed radio systems will operate when other electrical equipment, such as PLT apparatus, is in use. The regulations are trying to remain flexible as this technology develops and adapts. Equally, not imposing a mandatory fixed standard allows the regulatory environment to adapt as experience of the use of this new technology emerges.
My hon. Friend referred to EN55022, and I am sure most Members are no more familiar with it than many Ministers have been over the years. Let me explain that, following discussions between the European Commission, member states and the industry, it was agreed that this standard could not apply to PLT equipment for a variety of technical and administrative reasons. The Commission has therefore asked the European standards organisations to adopt an appropriate standard. Until such time as a standard is available—it is logical that it will affect both the UK and the wider markets in which British manufacturers work—manufacturers will need to design products that meet the objective, taking into account key issues such as the extent of knowledge, the requirements of other users of the spectrum—an important principle—good engineering practice and the state of the art. This does mean that, for a period, there will be a lack of absolute certainty as to what is acceptable. Let me be clear, however, that should products be placed on the market that do not meet the objectives of the regulations—in other words, they cause unreasonable interference—those manufacturers should expect enforcement action to be taken.
Let me explain how enforcement works before coming on to the specific issues about GCHQ and others. In the United Kingdom, enforcement of protection of the radio spectrum for radio amateurs is now the responsibility of Ofcom, while the BBC is the relevant enforcement authority for interference to commercial broadcasts. Ofcom takes a proactive approach to its enforcement role, but it can take action, like any regulator, only where non-compliance can be shown.
As my hon. Friend has already stated, in June last year Ofcom commissioned an independent study, "The Likelihood and Extent of Radio Frequency Interference from In-Home PLT Devices", better to understand the technical aspects behind its impacts. The study broadly concluded that, provided that PLT equipment entering the market continues to advance technologically—this is the key point—there will be a "negligible" probability of interference to the majority of spectrum users in the coming 10 years. We all need to bear in mind that these advances in technology are often driven by consumer demand, as my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, and by the desire to produce more energy-efficient and therefore cheaper devices.
Mitigation techniques include fixed notching—limiting transmission to a part of the radio spectrum; smart notching—an automated scanning of the spectrum for free space; and power saving. In response to concerns raised by amateur radio users, including CB, their bands are subject to fixed notching. As the use of PLTs and higher frequencies becomes more common, this situation might be revised and additional mitigation techniques such as smart-notching could well become more prevalent and be applied more widely. This is likely to coincide with the development of a European standard.
Let me deal now with complaints. Between July 2008 and March this year, Ofcom received 228 complaints that were attributed to PLT devices. To be fair, this needs to be seen in the context of about 1.8 million pieces of PLT equipment supplied here. All the complaints about PLT have been referred to the supplier for resolution and all except one have been resolved. Furthermore, I am advised that all the complaints were received from hobby radio amateurs. Ofcom rightly points out that amateur radio licensees do not have an absolute legal right to an absolutely "clean spectrum". It is also worth noting that the number of complaints received over the last 12 months has been significantly less than during the previous 12 months —from 147 down to 53—even though, as my hon. Friend said, there has been an increasing rate of supply of this equipment.
My hon. Friend mentioned his constituent in the Bedford area. Reference to problems caused by television aerial boosters serves to remind us that many products in common use do cause problems. In this instance Ofcom was able to take prompt action, which I think is a sign that it is not being merely reactive.
Let me now deal with more serious issues relating to GCHQ and the Civil Aviation Authority. The GCHQ statement was issued by a staff member without proper authority, and contained inaccuracies. It has therefore subsequently been withdrawn. I am advised that the statement does not reflect the position of GCHQ, which has informed my Department that PLT is not currently affecting its capability.
The CAA has now specifically stated that it does not endorse or support the comments in the withdrawn GCHQ statement to which my hon. Friend referred. I accept that it is important to safety in aerospace, which he rightly mentioned, for all potential risks to be considered carefully, and the Government are clear about that. The CAA tells me that at present it has no evidence that a problem exists, but this is a new technology, and I can tell my hon. Friend that the CAA intends to undertake further testing as the higher-frequency products emerge on the market.
When I looked into the issue in preparation for the debate, I was encouraged to learn that the Ministry of Defence, the police and the fire and rescue, ambulance, coastguard and lifeboat services have all reported no complaints about interference. That breadth of evidence seems to me to support the conclusion that the problem is limited to a particular group of people. It is not a case of complacency; it is, as I know my hon. Friend will understand, a case of trying to judge the proportion of the risk.
My hon. Friend raised the important question of co-ordination in the context of the development of category 5. The Digital Britain team emanated largely from my Department, and we have close links with it as well as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Transport. Ofcom tells me that it regularly consults all the relevant public and private stakeholders, including GCHQ, the CAA and the Radio Society of Great Britain.
My hon. Friend asked whether category 5 broadband cables would be installed as standard practice in all new homes. I am advised that that initiative was part of the programme of the Digital Britain team. It must be said that although dedicated cabling may be the best engineering solution, it is not generally practicable to install it in existing homes without significant cost or disruption. For new build and rewiring it may make sense, but the rising cost of copper may make it prohibitively expensive.
As with all potential sources of interference in the radio spectrum, users, especially those with the potential to affect security and safety-critical systems, we take our responsibilities seriously. The current regulatory regime is more flexible than some users may wish it to be, but that is for a good reason. As I have said, it must be able to adapt to changes in technology and its use. The Government intend to monitor the situation carefully, principally via Ofcom. Ofcom will continue to address any complaints that arise, but so far it has concluded that the technology complies with the requirements of the legislation, and that the few instances of difficulty should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
While the Government will continue to pay attention to the concerns of complainants, we believe that a ban on PLT products would be wholly disproportionate. Let me put it simply: our approach is to be vigilant in monitoring the situation and proportionate in enforcement.
Page updated: 8th December 2020
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