CBRS will bring change to energy and utility industries

As incumbent users of the spectrum, utilities and energy companies that operate private CBRS networks will be protected by the spectrum access system (SAS) administrators. (Getty Images)

The valuable midband spectrum that CBRS represents is familiar territory for the U.S. utility industry, because many utilities already operate private wireless networks in the 3.65 GHz portion of the band (3650-3700 MHz). The spectrum is well-suited for monitoring and managing substations and transformers, according to Dimitris Mavrakis, research director for telco networks at ABI Research. Often utilities have used WiMAX for deployments in the 3.65 GHz band. Now, they have until October 2020 to make these networks compliant with the FCC’s Part 96 CBRS rules. 

Wireless Innovation Forum (WINN Forum) CMO Richard Bernhardt, who also serves as the national spectrum adviser for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), said makers of Citizens Broadband radio service devices (CBSDs) are busy helping the energy and utility industries prepare for this change. “Thousands and thousands of CBSDs are being translated into CBRS, a good number of which are in the energy and utility world,” Bernhardt said. “That’s everything from running energy and utility plants to smart meters to oil wells and measurements of oil taken out of the ground.” 

As incumbent users of the spectrum, utilities and energy companies that operate private networks will be protected by the spectrum access systems (SAS) administrators that regulate traffic in the CBRS band. New users may come into the band, but they will not be able to connect without going through a SAS, which will protect incumbent users from interference. The utility industry has voiced concerns to the FCC about the SAS, noting that “such a situation is untested and may not effectively mitigate the threat of interference to incumbent utility systems in the 3.65 GHz band.”

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At the same time, the energy and utility industries see opportunity in CBRS. “The 3.5 GHz band creates an opportunity to expand capacity because utilities will have access to as much as 150 MHz of spectrum (3550-3700 MHz) as well as “Long-Term Evolution” (LTE) equipment,” the Utility Technology Council told the FCC. 

In the oil and gas industries, CBRS networks are seen by some as less useful than cellular networks in the lower bands. “Most of the activity we see in the energy industry is using lower frequency spectrum deployed across a larger area for things like predictive maintenance or fault protection of equipment,” said Mavrakis of ABI Research. Even in the utility industry, Mavrakis sees midband spectrum applications as a small part of the industry’s potential use cases for cellular.

David Wright, president of the CBRS Alliance, thinks the new technology will find its footing in the energy industry, especially with companies that have private networks and tend to have relatively narrowband access. “So they can be good for low bitrate telemetry and things like that," said Wright. "But if you’re starting to talk about remote monitoring …  If you want to start doing some of that higher bitrate type of traffic, then the access to up to 150 megahertz of GAA spectrum or potentially up to 40 megahertz of the protected access PAL spectrum is huge. So I think that is one of the key reasons they would be looking to leverage CBRS, just because it enables a much more robust network than they typically had access to in the past from a private cellular perspective.”

Wright also thinks refineries and power plants will look at private CBRS networks for monitoring, since these facilities often have to suspend operations when a person goes inside to check on a potential problem. “Being able to put cameras into those places is a much better solution,” he said. He noted that at one point GE explored the possibility of using drone-mounted cameras and CBRS to monitor power plants. Wright said that while CBRS isn’t the only wireless solution for security cameras, it is more secure than Wi-Fi and has a better penetration profile.

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