UTC’s Ditto Details Importance of Utility Communications to Grid Reliability at FERC Hearing

 

Washington—June 27, 2019—Utility communications systems are critically important to grid resilience, reliability, and modernization, Utilities Technology Council President and CEO Joy Ditto told a panel of federal energy regulators today.

Ms. Ditto applauded the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for holding a discussion on utility communications issues and encouraged the Commission to continue strengthening a dialogue with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the interdependencies between the energy and telecommunications industries grow deeper.

“UTC has encouraged greater interaction between this Commission and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and we believe this discussion is an important first step,” Ms. Ditto said. “The interdependencies between the energy and telecommunications industries are growing by the day. These interdependencies demonstrate the need for enhanced dialogue between the FERC and the FCC, particularly as decisions made by one entity—the FCC—impact the utilities regulated by this Commission.”

Ms. Ditto spoke at FERC’s annual reliability technical conference, held each year at the agency’s Washington headquarters.

In her remarks, Ms. Ditto noted that the FCC has historically not well understood or recognized the communications needs of utilities and other critical-infrastructure industries (CII). Utilities, along with many CII, own, build, and operate their own communications networks to make the grid stronger, safer, more robust, and more responsive to customer needs. These communications networks—often called “private networks”—rely on both wireline (copper and increasingly fiber) and wireless technologies to function.

Like any wireless network, utility networks require radio frequency spectrum to function. The allocation of commercial spectrum is overseen by the FCC. Because spectrum can be subject to interference, which can delay or degrade the delivery of wireless information, access to interference-free spectrum is vital for utility and other CII networks, Ms. Ditto said.

This is relevant to FERC, she said, because the FCC is considering a proposal which would likely increase the threat of interference in the heavily used 6 GHz band, which utilities have relied upon for more than two decades to provide mission-critical communications services along the Bulk Electric System, including day-to-day reliability and emergency response, Ms. Ditto said.

Spectrum interference, Ms. Ditto said, can negatively impact the integrity of the data being transmitted over these networks, which can then degrade operations. Utilities use the 6 GHz band for a number of reasons, she said, including the fact that, to date, it is a licensed band, which means that other entities in the band are known to each other and they can make arrangements to prevent and reduce harmful interference.

Unfortunately, the FCC is proposing to open the band to an unknown number of unlicensed users, which not only raises the likelihood of spectrum interference but also makes it incredibly difficult to remediate such interference given the amount of new users expected to participate in the band, Ms. Ditto said.

The 6 GHz band to date has been a reliable communications workhorse for utility operations; if the FCC proceeds as planned, the result will be the removal of a critical tool out of a utility’s toolbox to actively monitor their infrastructure and take action in the event of problem, Ms. Ditto said.

This is why an ongoing dialogue between the FERC and FCC is in the public interest, and why FERC should be commended for holding this discussion, Ms. Ditto said.

“Because communications policy is managed by the FCC, and because the deployment of [utility communications] 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. We believe today’s discussion is an excellent opportunity to discuss these issues and we again commend FERC for providing this forum.”

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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