Utilities to FCC: Don’t mess with our spectrum

Utility companies often operate extensive wireless networks. (Pixabay/SnapwireSnaps )

A trade group representing hundreds of U.S. utility companies is urging federal agencies to make sure that power and electricity providers retain control of interference-free spectrum so they can continue to operate their own private wireless networks.

And, importantly, the Utilities Technology Council noted that part of the reason utilities need their own licensed spectrum is because “utilities have built out and maintained their own ICT networks, rather than outsourcing service from commercial telecommunications carriers. Utilities require high levels of reliability that traditional telecommunications carriers are unable or unwilling to provide.”

As a result, the Utilities Technology Council—a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing “critical infrastructure providers”—is advocating for utilities to obtain more spectrum where necessary, and for the FCC and other agencies to ensure that spectrum currently used by utilities is protected from interference.

“Utilities rely on both wireless and wireline technologies to run their ICT [Information and Communications Technology] networks,” the Utilities Technology Council wrote in its latest filing (PDF). “Depending on the size, location, terrain, and geography of a utility’s service territory, along with the expense of laying fiber lines to these remote locations, many utilities rely on wireless communications. Like any wireless network, utility ICT systems need radiofrequency spectrum to function, and the reliability of the wireless communications may be affected by radio frequency interference. Therefore, access to adequate and interference-free spectrum is a requirement if these networks are to work as intended.”

As part of its advocacy on the topic, the Utilities Technology Council urged the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission this week to work more closely with the FCC—the federal agency that oversees the nation’s radio waves—to ensure that utilities get access to the spectrum they need. As the Utilities Technology Council noted, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission earlier this year embarked on a “Grid Resilience Order” geared toward protecting the nation’s power and electricity grids from cyberattacks and extreme weather, among other threats.

And, to protect utility grids, the Utilities Technology Council argued that spectrum should be a key part of that effort.

“These networks improve the reliability and resiliency of the grid by supplying real-time situational awareness to control-room operators,” the group wrote. “Networks also enable integration of distributed energy technologies such as battery storage, smart meters, and rooftop solar. Additionally, utilities use communications networks to restore service after devastating storms and other natural disasters and man-made incidents.”

Further, the UTC warned that the FCC “continues to treat utilities as any other commercial entity when it comes to spectrum policies” despite what the group pointed to as Congressional action designed to exempt utilities from competitive bidding in spectrum auctions.

Rob Thormeyer, the UTC’s director of communications and advocacy, said that the group is spending most of its current work on spectrum bands including 6 GHz, 3.5 GHz, 4.9 GHz and 406-420 MHz. For example, in the ongoing debate about shared spectrum in the CBRS 3.5 GHz band, the UTC is urging the FCC (PDF) against expanding operations in that band to include the 3.65 GHz band because the group argued it may potentially cause interference to the incumbent systems that operate there.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—Private wireless networks are quietly becoming a thing

The wireless industry has long eyed utilities as a potential customer of wireless equipment and, potentially, wireless network services. For example, almost three years ago AT&T and Nokia said they developed a private, secure, reliable and high-capacity LTE network for smart grid technology, and would sell it to utility companies and others, though so far the companies haven’t publicly announced any progress on that effort.

But utilities have shown a clear desire for spectrum and wireless technology. For example, the Salt River Project (SRP) in Arizona last year said it will use equipment from MiMOMax Wireless to build a network on the licensed 700 MHz spectrum it obtained from Access Spectrum in 2015 (PDF). And 700 MHz spectrum owner Access Spectrum has sold spectrum licenses to the likes of Northwestern Energy in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, Portland General Electric in Oregon and Navopache Electric in Arizona.