Federal Spectrum Policies Could Threaten Utility Emergency Response; Dialogue Needed, Ditto Says

 

The electric utility industry has the technologies and processes in place to restore power back to the grid after a widespread outage, though certain federal policies could threaten the industry’s ability to communicate during such an event, UTC President and CEO Joy Ditto told Congress.

In testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources (SENR) Committee, Ms. Ditto said a better understanding of the growing interdependencies between the electricity and telecommunications industries would help smooth out these problematic policies. The SENR Committee, she said, could take a lead role in encouraging federal agencies to communicate more often, which might result in better policies for both sectors.

Ms. Ditto delivered her remarks during the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s Oct. 11 hearing on blackstart, the process for returning electricity to the grid after a widespread outage.

[Editor’s Note: Please see our related story on the discussion from the hearing itself.]

In her testimony, Ms. Ditto detailed how electric utilities use Information and Communications Technology (ICT) networks to underpin the day-to-day reliability and resilience of their infrastructure. These networks are also essential for storm/emergency response and recovery, including the delicate process of blackstart.

She highlighted multiple reports from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) which noted how utilities test their communications networks frequently to ensure their operability in the event of a blackstart situation. Ms. Ditto discussed how utilities bolster their communications systems through redundancy and other elements to ensure their networks remain functional—or can quickly become functional—during natural or man-made disasters.

Despite all this preparation, Ms. Ditto noted that policies from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) related to the spectrum necessary for wireless communications networks could threaten the reliability of utility ICT systems, which could in turn impact the electricity industry as well.

“FERC’s regulations require electric utilities to meet stringent reliability standards in order to provide the highest levels of reliable service as demanded by the government and, more importantly, the industry’s customers,” Ms. Ditto said. “Integral to the utility industry’s compliance with these regulations is access to interference-free spectrum. Without access to adequate interference-free spectrum, private utility networks will not be as reliable as they are now. Yet, the FCC has pending proceedings that threaten to compromise the safety, reliability and security of utility networks.”

Given the importance of utility communications networks to reliability, resilience, storm response, and even edge-of-the-grid technologies, the time is now to consider the cross-jurisdictional issues between the FCC and FERC. This Committee could lead the way, Ms. Ditto said.

“Because spectrum policy is managed by the FCC, and because the deployment of ICT networks is interwoven into the deployment of electric service, we believe it is time to hold cross-agency and cross-jurisdictional discussions between the FCC and FERC about the growing interdependencies between the energy and telecommunications industries,” she said. “Such meetings would build understanding between the two regulatory bodies and the industries they regulate. On behalf of our members, we urge the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to encourage a formal relationship between the FCC and FERC.”

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About UTC
The Utilities Technology Council (UTC) is a global trade association dedicated to serving critical infrastructure providers. Through advocacy, education and collaboration, UTC creates a favorable business, regulatory and technology environment for our members who own or operate Information and Communication Technology (ICT) systems in support of their core business. For more information: UTC.org