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 For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, you may be shocked at what I am about to say: Thank you to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, the Commission) for moving forward on its proceeding to make more efficient use of the 4.9 GHz spectrum band. For those who may be reading this blog for the first time, the FCC is often at odds with utilities’ critical communications needs, particularly related to its spectrum policy, and therefore, my views of many of the FCC’s actions are, shall we say, lacking in positive feelings. But in this instance, I am hopeful that the FCC’s Sixth Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM)in this proceeding could be positive for utilities.

A number of years ago, the federal government studied how heavily various spectrum bands were being used. Based on that analysis, they realized that certain bands – whether controlled by the FCC (for commercial use) or the NTIA (for government use) – were only being lightly used by incumbents. Given the increasing demand for spectrum in general, this effort was well-conceived and helped the government and spectrum users understand where opportunities might exist for expanded access in certain bands.

As a result, in 2007, the FCC initiated a proceeding to explore expanding access to the 4.9 GHz band, which is currently limited to use by public safety entities exclusively. Unfortunately, the FCC’s proceeding in this matter was put aside while it pursued other priorities, despite a steady drumbeat of encouragement from UTC to resurrect the effort. Finally, the FCC issued a Further NPRM this year, and UTC worked with several of our fellow trade associations to draft comments that were submitted last week. The Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the GridWise Alliance joined UTC in its filing.

A few key issues are at play here:

  • As I have said many times in this blog and as UTC has said seemingly ad infinitum, utilities need highly reliable, interference-free spectrum to ensure highly reliable and resilient electric, gas and water services. If done in partnership with the incumbent public safety users in the 4.9 GHz band, which we propose to do, this could be a highly viable option for our purposes. Given the public safety purpose of the band, it would not be subject to auction and therefore would not break the bank for utilities and their customers – another significant plus.
  • Utilities are deploying intelligent electronic devices across their infrastructures, bringing a new level of resiliency and reliability to their systems. These deployments also enable new technologies like distributed energy resources, sought by customers, that require much higher levels of controls via communications to ensure balance can be maintained electrically. These grid-modernization efforts also require interference-free spectrum. As mentioned in the comments, utilities would use the 4.9 GHz band for supervisory control and data acquisition applications, distribution automation and video surveillance, among other uses.
  • If all goes well, this could be a win-win-win – utilities get access to a viable spectrum band, public safety gets to partner with utilities in the band (which may lead to some economies of scale being created that could help with standardization of equipment), and the federal government gets a more efficient use of the spectrum it manages.

But, wait, there are two potential catches:

First, as part of the rulemaking, the FCC is considering commercializing the 4.9 GHz band, and could develop rules to allow the wireless carriers to lease or auction the spectrum. UTC, EEI, NRECA and GridWise, as well as many public safety stakeholders filed comments opposing allowing commercial carriers to use the 4.9 GHz band because it would likely cause congestion and interference, effectively undermining the reliability of mission-critical communications in the band.

In our comments, we explained that utilities would make effective use of the band and that opening it up more widely to commercial carriers would actually discourage investment in the band by utilities. We cited surveys that UTC conducted both in 2012 and again this year, which show that utilities are eager to access the 4.9 GHz band for a variety of applications. This is crucially important to demonstrate to the Commission that it doesn’t need to open up the band to commercial carriers and that utilities can do it together with public safety. UTC thanks its members for their input on this issue and encourages them to file reply comments that describe in more detail their plans for using the band, if the FCC makes them eligible to hold a license on a co-primary basis with public safety.

Second, we’re concerned that the FCC will, in potentially granting access to utilities in this band, use it as a trade-off with other bands, most notably the 6 GHz. The 6 GHz band is much more crowded with licensed users, including utilities, public safety, railroads, and other critical infrastructure users, and must not be opened up broadly to mobile operations that will cause interference. The two bands are really apples and oranges – the one is lightly used and needs partnership while the other is highly used by various critical infrastructure sectors and should not be disrupted.

With these caveats, the bottom line is that we are heartened by the FCC’s efforts to move forward with a deeper analysis of the 4.9 GHz band and look forward to a positive outcome for utilities…until we meet again.

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