Utilities push for expanded access in 4.9 GHz band

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Four top utility associations believe the 4.9 GHz band should be expanded to include utilities and other critical infrastructure industries. (Pixabay)

A group of utilities is urging the FCC to expand access in the 4.9 GHz band for critical infrastructure industries (CII), while public safety organizations are saying dedicated access to public safety must be preserved.

The 4.9 GHz band consists of 50 MHz of spectrum which was allocated for public safety use in 2002, but the rules didn’t allow public safety to make the most effective use of the band. More recently, the FCC launched a new attempt to reassess the band and is soliciting comments on how to stimulate expanded use of 4.9 GHz while ensuring that incumbent public safety users continue to have priority.

The Utilities Technology Council (UTC), the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) and the GridWise Alliance jointly submitted comments last week encouraging expansion of the 4.9 GHz band to include utilities and other CII. They say their members would quickly make effective use of the band as the demand for smart grid, grid modernization and Utility 2.0 applications increase over the next several years.

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Southern Company, a utility serving areas of the Southeast, said (PDF) that allowing utilities to have primary access to the 4.9 GHz band would help reduce equipment costs for public safety users and help utilities operate more resilient and reliable facilities for service to the public, to government agencies and to other critical infrastructure entities, including commercial service providers.

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In response to questions posed by the commission, Southern Company said the band should not be redesignated for commercial use, nor should a two-tier sharing approach be pursued.

“It should come as no surprise that the band has continued to languish under rules adopted in the 2002-2003 timeframe,” the company stated. “The user community should not be faulted for failing to make more productive use of the band when nothing has changed in the more than six years since the public was first invited to offer comments on how to improve use of this band.”

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) said the commission should make clear that the 4.9 GHz band will be preserved for public safety use. That said, APCO is open to exploring a sharing framework for the band that would allow use for non-public safety purposes, provided a proven sharing mechanism is in place that ensures priority and preemption for public safety users.

“Public safety agencies should not be put in a position to lease or otherwise put a price on their use of the 4.9 GHz band,” APCO told the commission (PDF).

Currently, public safety agencies use the 4.9 GHz band for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint links, which are especially useful for connecting fire/rescue stations and radio networks in rural areas. They’re also using it for data and video backhaul, real-time video surveillance, controlling tactical robots, airborne video, broadband connectivity and wireless fixed hot spots for high-speed public safety data sharing.

APCO also said that public safety doesn’t have spectrum options that could replace the 4.9 GHz band. Land mobile radio allocations in the VHF, UHF, 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands are limited to basic voice communications and some low-bandwidth data with permitted bandwidths typically on the order of 12.5 kHz and 25 kHz. The T-Band is further limited to 11 metropolitan areas. “Thus, even where channels are available for licensing, these other bands should not be viewed as alternatives to, or interchangeable with, the 50 MHz that the 4.9 GHz band affords,” APCO said.

Further, APCO said the public safety community has been waiting on the commission to take actions that will make the 4.9 GHz band a more attractive option for mission critical communications. APCO and the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) conducted research and submitted detailed proposals for changes to the licensing rules that would increase public safety’s use of the band, but in the six years since the most recent Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the commission hasn’t adopted any of those measures.  

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The City of New York told the commission (PDF) that it’s an intense user of the 4.9 GHz spectrum, and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) alone holds 58 licenses in the band; the NYPD uses it to support on-street camera video backhaul, specialized video link applications supporting bomb squad robots and counter-terrorism applications.

The New York City Fire Department (NYFD) uses the 4.9 GHz spectrum to support wireless video and data communications at the scene of major fires, including wireless command boards that track resources, both human and material, at the scene of an incident.

The city is concerned that broadband wireless networks using LTE protocols in close proximity to existing NYC public safety agency deployments will result in a throughput degradation to the incumbent public safety system. The city suggests that if leasing arrangements are authorized, exclusion zones be created to ensure that such degradation doesn’t occur and that in all events, public safety entities have the ability for “immediate interruption.”