February 19, 2019

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Major Critical-Infrastructure Industry Organizations Push Back Against FCC Spectrum Proposal

Six major industry organizations representing critical electric, oil, natural gas, and water utilities are united in opposition to a federal proposal that would open up a critical wireless communications band, potentially disrupting crucial communications systems underpinning the safe and reliable delivery of these lifesaving and sustaining services.

In a significant show of force, the critical industry organizations said the proposal could cause these entities to reengineer and rebuild their communications networks–a costly process that could take individual companies 10 years or more—rather than face even the threat that their networks could fail.

The entities signing the comments are the American Petroleum Institute, the American Public Power Association, the American Water Works Association, the Edison Electric Institute, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and the Utilities Technology Council.

“These networks are used to provide mission-critical command-and-control applications to manage the grid, including SCADA and teleprotection,” the entities state. “These highly complex systems collect data from devices on the grid and process that information for operators to control operations from remote locations or for the devices themselves to automatically respond to faults on the grid that can cause outages as well as accidents.”

At issue is the Federal Communications Commission’s proceeding into whether to open the heavily used 6 GHz spectrum band to unlicensed, commercial use. Spectrum is a finite commodity and is necessary for any kind of wireless communication system, including baby monitors, smart phones, Wi-Fi, and industrial control systems.

Nearly all electric, water, and natural gas utilities/companies deploy their own communications systems to monitor and underpin their infrastructure. These networks are almost all privately owned and operated, and therefore do not rely on commercial communications companies for service. Like any communications network, those owned and operated by members of these organizations consist of wireline and wireless features.

Critical infrastructure industries such as those represented in this coalition build their networks to monitor and maintain their infrastructure and ensure it is operating safely and reliably. Many entities use the 6 GHz spectrum band for certain functions. Electric utilities, for example, use 6 GHz to run their supervisory and control data acquisition (SCADA) and teleprotection systems, both essential to the reliable operation of electricity. Because of the importance of the information being transmitted in the band, to date the FCC has limited use of the band to license holders. Licensed spectrum offers a high-level of protection against radiofrequency interference and provides users the ability to resolve potential interference from other licensees, if any occurs.

However, in late October 2018, the FCC initiated a proceeding into whether it should open the 6 GHz to unlicensed, commercial users. It also sought comment into whether a proposed “automated frequency coordination system” (AFC) could be used to prevent interference with licensed users. Proponents of opening the band argue that doing so will provide more access to Wi-Fi devices, among other things.

In their comments, the critical infrastructure organizations urge the FCC to reconsider its proposal, as there remains no proven way to reduce interference and there are other bands which could be used for other commercial uses.

“The 6 GHz band uniquely provides favorable propagation characteristics for reasonable path distances, lower rain fade, and better reliability than other spectrum bands, such as the 8 GHz or 11 GHz bands,” the entities state. “Electric companies and CII could not simply migrate their operations to these other spectrum bands; it would require significant reengineering of their microwave links or adding more link segments to make up for shorter propagation distances.”

The AFC system proposed in the FCC proceeding remains untested and based on faulty assumptions, the entities said. It does not account for the nature of the existing critical services in the band and “disregards” concerns over critical-infrastructure interference.

“The Commission’s proposal to mitigate interference through automated frequency coordination (‘AFC’) is unsupported by the record evidence or experience,” the entities state. “The Commission’s proposal would also likely require lengthy periods of time and substantial sums of money to implement.  Spectrum sharing technologies like those in the Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (‘CBRS’) are nascent and AFC has not even been tested to determine its performance capabilities.”

Comments are the FCC proposal were due Feb. 15. Reply comments are due March 18. It is unclear when or whether the Commission will take final action.

Please contact the UTC Public Policy Team with any questions.

Dialogue Between Agencies, Industries Key to Understanding Common Risks: Ditto

As critical infrastructure industries such as electric, water and natural gas utilities, oil pipelines, and telecommunications companies become more interdependent, a greater understanding of the risks associated with these interdependencies is crucial to protect against cyber and physical attack, a panel of industry experts said last week.

UTC President and CEO Joy Ditto, speaking on the panel at the closing general session of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Winter Policy Summit last week in Washington, noted that all critical infrastructure industries are reliant upon each other for some facet of their operation.

The overlap of these “Venn diagrams” among the sectors, she said, will only continue to increase.

As this occurs, the federal government must also do some converging of its own, she said. “UTC is helping break down the silos” between particular government agencies as the utility and telecommunications industries become more reliant upon each other, she said, referring specifically to calls UTC has made to encourage meetings/collaboration between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

While utilities deploy more connectivity along their system—both to improve grid resilience and the ability of consumers to better control their energy usage—the interdependencies will deepen. “The fact is, [utilities] are going to deploy these technologies more and more often,” she said.

And it is the continued deployment of communications technologies along utility infrastructure that is raising the risk of cyberattack, Ms. Ditto said.

The key for utilities and their regulators is to understand these risks and manage them, she said. Utilities “are physical entities, and the only reason we have cyber risks is because we’re adding communications to manage these assets,” Ms. Ditto said.

The ongoing threats of damaging storms only add to the risks, she said. As a result, utilities and their regulators are spending time “understanding where these risks are, understanding where the cyber risks are, where the physical risks are as well as where they aren’t,” she said.

Initial discussions such as the ones being hosted by NARUC are important to understanding the overall challenges, Ms. Ditto said. “Dialogue is really important as an initial step,” she said, and could be replicated at the state and regional levels through technical conferences and summits convened by policy makers and including these critical industries. 

Utility Broadband Projects Bridge ‘Dividing Line’ in Rural US, Panel Says

In rural America, fast, affordable, and reliable broadband connectivity is the “dividing line” between communities that survive and communities that fail.

This is why electric utilities and other non-traditional entities can be critical enablers of rural broadband, a panel of experts told a room full of state utility regulators and telecommunications stakeholders last week.

“Broadband is the literal dividing line” between a rural community’s success or failure, said Mississippi Public Service Commission Chairman Brandon Presley, who moderated the panel.

Chairman Presley outlined the problem in stark terms. His state is losing business and young people who are moving to other areas of the country because they cannot get the internet connectivity needed to sustain life’s daily needs, he said. “The people I represent know that we have a long way to go” in Mississippi in terms of broadband deployment. “Mississippi is losing millennials” and others because of this, he said.

“The question for rural America is, ‘How do we fix this problem’,” he asked.

This is where electric utilities come in.

Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative in Millboro, VA, discussed his utility’s decision to deploy broadband and quashed traditional assumptions that rural Americans do not need or want fast Internet speeds. Mr. Keyser said neither of their two most popular speed tiers are BARC’s “entry level” speed of 50mbps. His co-op’s biggest problem, he said, is that BARC “can’t get people connected fast enough. The demand for rural broadband is tremendous.”

Brett Kilbourne, General Counsel and Vice President of Policy at UTC, added that utilities get involved in rural broadband deployment “because no one else will.”

“This is something that’s a win-win” for utilities, their customers, and their communities, he said. Mr. Kilbourne added that while cooperatives and some public power utilities are the most likely to be offering broadband services, he is excited by developments in Mississippi and elsewhere in which investor-owned utilities have started playing a role as well.

Please contact the UTC Public Policy Team for more information.

FCC Details Next Steps for Recipients of CAF II Broadband Funding

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC, the Commission) last week detailed the next steps for broadband deployment to the more than 713,000 rural homes and businesses in 45 states supported by the successful Connect America Fund Phase II Auction.

The Connect America Fund (CAF) Phase II Auction, which closed in August 2018, allocated nearly $1.5 billion in support for broadband in rural areas currently lacking it. The funds are targeted to areas where the incumbent provider—large carriers known as price-cap carriers—declined a 2015 offer of CAF Phase II model-based support.

More than 30 electric cooperative utilities were among the winners of the CAF Phase II auction. UTC staff worked closely with many of these cooperatives to ensure the auction rules worked for non-traditional broadband providers such as utilities (Industry Intelligence, Sept. 10, 2018).

At its Feb. 14 open meeting, the FCC approved an order setting rules for the upcoming transition between legacy Connect America Fund support in certain price-cap areas, and new, auction-based support for voice and broadband.

The order attempts to provide clarity and certainty during this transition, while anticipating that existing voice service will be maintained throughout the process for customers. The order was not available at press time (Thursday, Feb. 14).

According to an agency press release, the FCC order does the following:

  • Where the price-cap carrier bid in the auction and won, legacy support is converted to auction-based support when Phase II support is authorized in that area;
  • In areas where a carrier other than the incumbent price-cap carrier won in the auction, legacy support to the price-cap carrier ceases when Phase II support for that winning bidder is authorized in that area;
  • In auction-eligible areas with no winning bidder, interim legacy support for existing price cap carriers will continue until further Commission action;
  • In areas that were ineligible for the auction, legacy support ceases when the first Phase II Auction support is authorized nationwide; and,
  • In areas where a competitive provider is receiving legacy support, it will be phased down over two years.

Please contact the UTC Public Policy Team with any questions.

Commerce, NTIA Release Report on Federal Policy Tools to Deploy Broadband

A host of federal agencies last week announced an across-government strategy to promote broadband deployment.

According to the government, the effort is part of the President’s call to use all possible policy tools to accelerate the deployment and adoption of reliable high-speed broadband connectivity in all parts of America.

In an accompanying report released last week by the White House, the government outlines the American Broadband Initiative (ABI), an effort that includes streamlining the federal permitting process, leveraging government assets to lower the cost of build-outs and maximizing the impact of federal funding.

“Broadband is an essential part of America’s communications infrastructure, and an important component of our economic policy,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. “The American Broadband Initiative will help government and industry target resources in the most efficient manner so all Americans can fully participate in advanced communications technologies.”

“A huge team effort across more than 20 agencies has gone into creating this report, and we look forward to delivering on this commitment to improve broadband deployment,” said David Redl, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The ABI, announced during a Commerce Department meeting with state broadband leaders, coincides with the Department’s work to update the national broadband map and make it easier to identify which parts of the country lack connectivity.

The ABI creates a vision for how the Federal government can increase broadband access:

  • The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will create a one-stop shop for broadband permitting information on its BroadbandUSA website;
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture is preparing to deploy a new $600 million broadband pilot program making investments in projects that deploy infrastructure in rural areas lacking connectivity;
  • The U.S. Department of Interior has created a map that inventories over 7,000 tower locations on federal properties, which will help service providers looking locate equipment as they expand wireless and wireline broadband networks; and,
  • The General Services Administration (GSA) has solicited input from the public on priority markets and assets needed to expand mobile access in underserved markets, and will work with Federal agencies to streamline commercial access to these markets. GSA will also revise the common application for permit requests, and work to increase timeliness of processing the forms.

UTC is still reviewing the report and whether and how it impacts utilities interested in, or already providing, external broadband service. Through its Utility Broadband Committee, UTC monitors federal programs and developments such as this to inform its members.

Please contact the UTC Public Policy Team with questions.

Upcoming Events

A snapshot of upcoming UTC webinars, events, and conference calls

  • Feb. 19: Utilities Broadband Committee Call—For more information, contact Brett Kilbourne
  • Feb. 20: IT/OT Committee Call—For more information, contact Bob Lockhart
  • Feb. 21: Telecom Committee Call—For more information, contact Brett Kilbourne
  • Feb. 21: Public Power Division Call—For more information, contact Sharla Artz
  • Feb. 28: UTC Region 7
  • March 6-8: UTC Region 3
  • March 25-27: UTC Mid-Central