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FERC offers to aid FCC review of proposal seen as threat to energy networks

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission flagged its concerns with a Federal Communications Commission proposal promoting wireless development and offered the expertise of its staff to aid the telecommunications regulator in assessing the plan.

"We understand the complexity of assessing the cross-dependencies between areas of critical infrastructure and would be pleased to offer technical assistance through FERC staff if it would be helpful," said the Dec. 18 letter sent to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and signed by the three sitting FERC members.

At issue is a pending proposal before the FCC that would allow unlicensed use of the wireless airwaves that house private communications networks operated by oil and gas operations and electric companies.

The proceeding is part of the FCC's broader objective to ensure there is adequate spectrum — the invisible infrastructure needed for wireless services — to accommodate the proliferation of connected, wireless devices often referred to as the internet of things.

The power sector has been adamant that a flood of new unlicensed users on the 6-GHz spectrum band would create an "unreasonably high" potential for radio frequency interference that could disrupt systems that underpin the safety and reliability of the grid.

But the telecom sector has asserted that the FCC's plan to mitigate interference to incumbent licensees through an automated frequency coordination, or AFC, system would protect any mission-critical operations.

'Ready, willing, able'

FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee noted the letter at the agency's open meeting Dec. 19.

"Given the potential impacts to utilities, my colleagues and I urge the FCC to carefully consider the comments regarding electric reliability and strongly consider additional testing before implementing the rule," Chatterjee said during the meeting. "FERC staff stands ready, willing and able to help if needed."

Opponents of the proposal have shown little confidence that the proposed mitigation tool would adequately safeguard utility networks and have criticized the AFC system as untested and theoretical.

Infrastructure that could be adversely impacted by harmful interference includes power plants, electric transmission lines, gas pipelines, control centers, substations and other energy assets, all of which deploy private communications networks for their mission-critical operations.

At risk, for instance, are teleprotection systems that prevent power line faults from escalating and causing damage to other equipment on the grid or power outages. Further, more than 300 offshore oil and gas production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico could face degraded critical emergency response communications from harmful interference on the 6-GHz band, jeopardizing safety.

'Important statement'

Chatterjee told reporters after the meeting that he wanted to make sure the FCC heard from FERC prior to taking action in the 6-GHz proceeding, though he clarified that he was not making any projections as to when the FCC would act.

"We wanted to make known also that we understand this is a complex undertaking, and that we here at the commission and the talented staff here stand at the ready to aid them in this," Chatterjee said of the letter. "So this was really an effort to flag our concern but to also offer our support should they need it."

The energy industry's effort to dissuade the FCC from moving forward with the spectrum proposal has been bolstered by lawmakers and other federal agencies weighing in on reliability expectations and the potential harms to gas and electric operations. The U.S. Department of Energy penned a letter to the FCC earlier in the year.

"We greatly appreciate the FERC commissioners sending this important statement," Sharla Artz, senior vice president of government and external affairs at the Utilities Technology Council, said in a statement.

"The 6 GHz spectrum band is a critical tool for electric utilities to maintain the safe and reliable operation of electric, gas and water services," Artz continued. "We hope the [FCC] will consider the input from FERC and other government agencies as it considers whether to allow unlicensed access to this vital band."

Jasmin Melvin is a reporter for S&P Global Platts. S&P Global Market Intelligence and S&P Global Platts are owned by S&P Global Inc.