GCHQ & CAA Concerns Over Environmental Pollution Caused by Radiation from Powerline Network Technology

John Petters made this Environmental Information Regulations request to Government Communications Headquarters
You only have a right in law to access information about the environment from this authority

This request has been closed to new correspondence from the public body. Contact us if you think it ought be re-opened.

The request was partially successful.

Dear Government Communications Headquarters,
Environmental Information Regulations
2004 Request.

Power Line Technology and Associated Home Networking Devices
(PLA/PLT) sometimes referred to as Homeplugs, operate by inserting a radio frequency signal into the mains electricity wiring, which is not designed for the purpose, as verified by the technical report by PA Consulting, commissioned by Ofcom.

“Fundamentally, with PLT, the power network is being used for something for which it was not designed.”


As a result, the mains wiring acts as an aerial and the radiation emitted by the powerline transmitters (PLT) causes environmental pollution within the scope of the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 2(1) (b).

This radiation severely interferes with the radio spectrum
including HF (High Frequency, known as Short Wave) and VHF (Very High Frequency) and is proven to cause radio equipment to be unable to operate as intended as the law requires. This is likely to include potentially, emergency services like fire, police, ambulance, air traffic control, Instrument Landing Systems, etc.

The sale and marketing of electronic equipment is governed by the Electromagnetic Regulations 2006 (EMC 2006) based upon an EU directive. This is the law of the land and throughout Europe. All equipment must comply with the ‘essential requirements’, which state:

“4.—(1) A reference to “essential requirements” in relation to equipment is a reference to the
requirements set out in paragraph (2) and in the case of fixed installations shall include the
requirements set out in regulation 5.
(2) Equipment shall be designed and manufactured, having regard to
the state of the art, so as to ensure that—
(a) the electromagnetic disturbance it generates does not exceed a level above which radio and telecommunications equipment or other equipment cannot operate as intended; and
(b) it has a level of immunity to the electromagnetic disturbance to be expected in its intended use which allows it to operate without unacceptable degradation of its intended use.

By its failure to regulate PLT as it is obliged to do, Ofcom is in breach its statutory duty as defined by EMC 2006,

“37.—(1) Except in relation to the descriptions of apparatus
referred to in paragraph (3), it shall be the duty of the following authorities to enforce these Regulations—
(a) in Great Britain:
(i) OFCOM insofar as action taken to enforce a regulation relates to the protection and management of the radio spectrum; and
(ii) local weights and measures authorities within their area;”
And its statutory duty under the Communications Act 2003,
“S3 - General duties of OFCOM
(1)It shall be the principal duty of OFCOM, in carrying out their functions—
(a)to further the interests of citizens in relation to
comunications matters; and
(2)The things which, by virtue of subsection (1), OFCOM are
required to secure in the carrying out of their functions include,
in particular, each of the following—
(a)the optimal use for wireless telegraphy of the electro-magnetic spectrum;”

Maplin Electronics Ltd, which retails PLT equipment stated,
“Unfortunately the Devolo (and other Homeplug) devices can cause radio interferance, however it should not be as severe as you've experienced.”

BT who supply Comtrend adaptors as part of the BT Vision packaged stated,
“....we are aware that the Comtrend technology used, whilst
complying with the EMC Regulations, has the potential for
interference to be caused to certain radio frequencies from its use of the mains wiring as a transmission medium.”

Yet Ofcom has a duty to protect the radio spectrum.
Ofcom claims,
“On the evidence, Ofcom has not so far found that there is a breach of the EMC essential requirements. Ofcom has therefore decided against taking further enforcement action at this time.”

However, the Deputy Information Commissioner ordered Ofcom to release the report on tests it commissioned in 2008, which it fought to conceal from the public, into Comtrend PLA equipment as supplied by BT, of which it claims to have allowed about 1.8 million pairs to continue to pollute the environment.

The report in fact stated the opposite to Ofcom’s statement that the regulator had no evidence of non compliance.
The report said,
“Ethernet Powerline Adaptors do not satisfy the essential
requirements of the EMC Directive”.

The report can be seen here:


Ofcom’s Enforcement Officer, Clive Corrie, stated in November 2008,
“For enforcement action to remove PLT equipment to be considered proportionate, Ofcom would need to establish that the apparatus does not meet the EMC essential requirements and generates harmful interference.”

He commissioned the report which was published in September 2008.

Adam Higgitt (Director, Government and Parliamentary Business,
Ofcom) in his written answer to John Hayes MP of 31st January 2011 said,
“All electrical and electronic products sold in the UK must comply with the Electromagnetic Compatibility Regulations (EMC)(2006) which are based on a European Directive. The person who places the products on the market must ensure that the products comply with the regulations and are marked accordingly.”

The report however said,
“Ethernet Powerline Adaptors do not satisfy the essential
requirements of the EMC Directive”.

Ed Vaizey, MP, Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries stated to John Hayes MP on my behalf 10 Feb 2011,the EMC regulations,
“set out key minimum (essential) requirements about the level of electrical disturbance from equipment with which a person must comply or risk criminal proceedings.”


“Ofcom is responsible for their enforcement where there is a radio spectrum protection or management issue".....I can assure you that any instances of interference into radio services are taken seriously and that Ofcom will continue to investigate and take action on a case-by-case basis".

But the Register states,
“Ofcom therefore denies there is any problem. Europe is apparently debating bringing in some laws on uncontrolled radio emissions, but until that happens the regulator can't, and won't, do anything about it.”


“Currently that only hits radio amateurs and those listening to shortwave radio, but faster PLT kit goes higher up the dial and has attracted concern from the Civil Aviation Authority as well as taking out DAB broadcasts and MW transmissions too, though Ofcom claims not to have received a single complaint along those lines.”


However a draft document entitled, “Power Line Technology and Associated Home Networking Devices”, dated 10th March 2011, circulated by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) proves that it is not only radio amateurs who are concerned and that Ofcom’s statement is flawed.

The document indicates that an increase in pollution of the
environment by way of noise has already been noted, which could hamper the very important national security work undertaken by the organisation. This is a matter of public interest, where our national security is concerned. Those organisations charged with protecting the public need to be given the tools with which to do the job.

GCHQ clearly takes the view that Ofcom’s abject failure to enforce the regulations against PLT is potentially compromising its ability to protect the UK.

The document reported that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is concerned about safety of life issues as a result of interference from PLT.

In the light of the above serious concerns I am requesting under the Environmental Information
Regulations 2004,
1 All documents, notes, e-mails, memos etc (redacted to remove personal details) from GCHQ to Ofcom and from Ofcom to GCHQ concerning PLT.

2 All documents, notes, e-mails, memos etc (redacted to remove personal details) from the CAA to GCHQ and from GCHQ to the CAA concerning PLT.

If this work is expected to exceed £449 in cost, you may limit the information to documents between 1st January 2009 and 1st May 2011, to a cost of £449 but you must justify such limit by providing a full breakdown of the time taken to find and redact the documents.

Yours faithfully,

John Petters

Dear Mr Petter,

Thank you for your e-mail of 6 April where in you requested the following information:

1 All documents, notes, e-mails, memos etc (redacted to remove
personal details) from GCHQ to Ofcom and from Ofcom to GCHQ
concerning PLT.

2 All documents, notes, e-mails, memos etc (redacted to remove
personal details) from the CAA to GCHQ and from GCHQ to the CAA
concerning PLT.

We note that you are requesting this information under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (EIRs). For a request to fall with the EIRs the information requests must fall within the definition of environmental information found in Regulation 2. This states as follows:

"environmental information" has the same meaning as in Article 2(1) of the Directive, namely any information in written, visual, aural, electronic or any other material form on -
(a) the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms, and the interaction among these elements;

(b) factors, such as substances, energy, noise, radiation or waste, including radioactive waste, emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment, affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment referred to in (a);

(c) measures (including administrative measures), such as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities affecting or likely to affect the elements and factors referred to in (a) and (b) as well as measures or activities designed to protect those elements;

(d) reports on the implementation of environmental legislation;

(e) cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used within the framework of the measures and activities referred to in (c); and

(f) the state of human health and safety, including the contamination of the food chain, where relevant, conditions of human life, cultural sites and built structures inasmuch as they are or may be affected by the state of the elements of the environment referred to in (a) or, through those elements, by any of the matters referred to in (b) and (c);

As you anticipated in your e-mail, a large volume of material will need to be considered to see whether it falls within the scope of the EIRs and your request. Therefore in reliance upon Regulation 7(1) of the EIRs we consider it reasonable to apply a 40-day time period for responding to your request, given the number of public holidays coming up and because "the complexity and volume of the information requested means that it is impracticable either to comply with the request within the earlier period or to make a decision to refuse to do so." Of course, if we can respond within 20 days, we shall endeavour to do so.

We do not intend to charge for considering your request, but given its breadth, we concur with your suggestion to limit the information sought to the period 1st January 2009 to the date of your request of 6 April 2011. We are not obliged to give a breakdown of the costs and man hours incurred in processing this request, but you should note that a consideration of the documents in scope over the past 3 months has already required involvement of at least 6 staff members for differing, but not inconsiderable amounts of time.

We cannot extend your request to 1 May 2011, as the Regulations only cover information that is held, but if pertinent documents come to light after 6 April 2011, but before our reply, we will endeavour to include them.

We will return to you as soon as is possible.

Kind regards
Head of Information Rights

show quoted sections

Jackson, Tim, Government Communications Headquarters

1 Attachment

Dear Mr Petters,

Thank you for your request under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 in the following terms:

1 All documents, notes, e-mails, memos etc (redacted to remove personal details) from GCHQ to Ofcom and from Ofcom to GCHQ concerning PLT.

2 All documents, notes, e-mails, memos etc (redacted to remove personal details) from the CAA to GCHQ and from GCHQ to the CAA concerning PLT.

As we indicated in our previous e-mail of 20 April 2011 in reviewing the relevant material retained by this Department, we have only included information which would constitute environmental information within the definition found in Regulation 2 of the EIRs. Information falling outside that definition could come within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, but GCHQ is not a public authority for the purposes of that Act.

You requested correspondence between GCHQ and OFCOM and GCHQ and the CAA. Our records do not contain any bilateral correspondence falling within your request, but to assist you with we have included correspondence where OFCOM and/or the CAA have been among the addressees in falling within relevant communications. We are therefore able to provide the information attached.

We should also advise you that we have retained some information which was considered under your request.
You will be aware that an unauthorised draft of a GCHQ document relevant to your request has been placed in the public domain. Normally such an unauthorised draft could be withheld under Regulation 12(4)(d) relating to unfinished documents.

Regulation 12(4)(d) provides as follows:
"For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that ...

(d) the request relates to material which is still in the course of completion, to unfinished documents or to incomplete data;"

However, given that the document has already been placed in the public domain and GCHQ has acknowledged that it was an unauthorised draft, we have nevertheless, provided it to you (dated 10 March 2011 above) to give some context to the other information provided.

However, we have retained GCHQ external communications regarding the circumstances under which the draft document appeared in the public domain. This is because we do not consider that information relating to how this document was made public would fall within the definition of environmental information, and providing further information concerning this would only exacerbate the unauthorised disclosure, and in any event it would be exempt under Regulations 12(4)(e) and 12(8) and 12(5)(f). For ease of reference these state as follows:

"12. (4) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that - (e) the request involves the disclosure of internal communications.

12 (8) For the purposes of paragraph [12](4)(e), internal communications includes communications between government departments."

12. (5) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect - (b) the course of justice, the ability of a person to receive a fair trial or the ability of a public authority to conduct an inquiry of a criminal or disciplinary nature;..."

We thank you for the recognition in your request that GCHQ would need to redact the names of its staff. We would have had to have done this in any event under Regulation 12(5)(f) which states as follows:

12 (5) For the purposes of paragraph (1) (a), a public authority may refuse to disclose information to the extent that its disclosure would adversely affect -
(a) international relations, defence, national security or public safety;

Given that GCHQ has an intelligence gathering role, it takes pains not to put identities of its staff in the public domain. This might lead to unwarranted attention being given to those staff and thus you will note that names have been redacted from the documentation enclosed.

We apologise that we were unable to respond to your request within the usual 20 day period, and hope you were satisfied with the explanation given in our previous response as to the reason for the delay.

Should you have any complaints regarding GCHQ's response to your request, you may ask for an internal review. Please contact Head of Information Rights at [email address] who will arrange an internal review of your case. Under Regulation 11(2) this needs to be done no later than 40 working days after the date of this email.

If you are not content with the outcome of the internal review, you have the right to apply directly to the Information Commissioner for a decision. The Information Commissioner can be contacted at:

Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House
Water Lane

If you have any queries about this email please contact me.

Kind regards
Head of Information Rights

show quoted sections