Spooks: powerline networking disrupts our work

Spy chiefs and aviation bosses raise concerns over powerline signal interference

Stewart Mitchell
17 May 2011

The future of powerline networking is due to be discussed in Parliament after the Government's snooping agency and the Civil Aviation Authority warned it interferes with their work.

GCHQ is home to the UK's snooping services and relies upon sensitive aerials to pick up signals from the airwaves, with listening stations dotted around the country. Noise from powerline networks could block out weak signals arriving from overseas, the Government's signal intelligence body claims.

In an unusually candid statement, which has since been retracted, the eavesdropping agency said powerline networking “is likely to cause a detrimental affect to part of the core business of this Department”, according to a report in The Daily Telegraph.

The concern follows criticism from the Civil Aviation Authority, which is worried that the interference could affect landing and navigation equipment.

At issue is the fact that network signals being passed across powerlines can leak from the cables, which effectively act as an antenna.

“The CAA is considering how practical testing could be undertaken to confirm the potential likelihood and extent of interference,” the authority said at a meeting earlier this year. “We are also actively working with Ofcom and the UK Government to address the regulatory and legal position around this issue.”

Radio reception

The technology has also been under investigation by the BBC, which in March blamed powerline networking for interference that affected radio reception in homes.

“Operation of the PowerLine Adapters (PLAs) caused interference to indoor-portable reception of both FM and DAB broadcasts, in varying degrees from no effect to total disruption,” the corporation said in a report. “The PLAs were also found to disturb reception of FM using an external antenna at one of the homes.”

The issues is due to be debated in Parliament tomorrow after Conservative MP Mark Lancaster reuqested a session to discuss “Government policy on the use of powerline technology devices”.

Industry defence

Ofcom, which said it had received more than 290 complains about interference from the technology, has so far said it does not believe the powerline networks are a serious problem.

But radio experts remain unconvinced, with several campaigners posting Freedom of Information requests seeking more details on Ofcom's position and how it was reached.

The largest supplier of powerine technology in the UK, Comtrend, said it was confident in its equipment and was bullish about the future. “The technology is not going to go away and consumers have a right to use it,” Jonathan Lishawa, managing director of Comtrend, told the Telegraph, adding that his company had supplied equipment to 1.5 million homes via its links with BT.

Lishawa said his company would work with the industry to allay their fears and claimed the company's equipment wasn't a threat to communications because it used a relatively low frequency.

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