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Trade groups say FCC proposal threatens grid reliability, heightens outage risks

Washington — In a significant show of force from the power and natural gas industries, a coalition of major trade groups is challenging a Federal Communications Commission proposal to open up a wireless communications band heavily used by utilities to unlicensed use.

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US airwaves known as spectrum are the invisible infrastructure needed for wireless services. A proposal by the FCC would allow unlicensed operations on the 6 GHz spectrum band, with interference to incumbent licensees mitigated through an automated frequency coordination (AFC) system. The proposed rule is part of the FCC's broader objective to ensure there is adequate spectrum to accommodate the proliferation of connected, wireless devices often referred to as the internet of things.

The America Petroleum Institute, American Public Power Association, American Water Works Association, Edison Electric Institute, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Utilities Technology Council told the FCC in a joint filing late February 15 that "any benefit from the expansion of unlicensed operations in the 6 GHz band is outweighed by risking interference to mission-critical communications and therefore is not in the public interest."

Electric, oil, natural gas and water companies have long relied on the 6 GHz band for their mission-critical operations and have asserted that a flood of new unlicensed users on the band would create an "unreasonably high" potential for radio frequency interference that could disrupt communications systems that underpin the safety and reliability of the grid.

INTERFERENCE NOT TOLERABLE

The FCC's proposed AFC system for mitigating interference, the groups said, is "a purely conceptual approach" based on faulty assumptions "that has not been proven to perform as promised."

Utility teleprotection systems, for instance, must act within milliseconds to avoid a widespread outage and thus cannot tolerate any interference. UTC President and CEO Joy Ditto said in an interview that "there has been little to no feedback from the [FCC] that they understand our concerns or that they believe that interference is not tolerable for us."

Faced with such risks on top of regulatory requirements to be available 99.999% of the time, utilities contend they would have to reengineer and rebuild their communications networks in another spectrum band, a timely and expensive task that may not even be feasible.

"As a practical matter, it may not be possible to construct additional sites for additional microwave links in these other spectrum bands, owing to the difficulty associated with local zoning and permitting, as well as environmental requirements," the groups said. "Even if a site could be acquired and constructed, the cost of the additional sites would be substantial and, in many cases, prohibitive."

Of note, utilities migrated to the 6 GHz band in the late 1990s after the FCC reallocated the 2 GHz band to personal communications and mobile satellite services, forcing utilities to rebuild their equipment and microwave communications networks in the 6 GHz space.

"It is inequitable for the commission to now essentially displace them from the 6 GHz band by adversely reducing the reliability of these microwave systems to unacceptable levels," the trade groups said. "Electric companies, their customers, and [critical infrastructure industries] users have made significant investments in this band ? and this investment therefore must be protected."

BACKBONE FOR COMMUNICATIONS

The 6 GHz band serves as the backbone for private communications networks operated by oil and gas operations and electric companies. These networks are used by the power and natural gas sectors for smart metering; energy, outage and distribution management; and real-time monitoring of distribution and transmission systems, to name a few of their functions.

"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," according to the joint filing.

Because of the importance of the information being transmitted in the band, use of these airwaves has been limited to license holders, providing a high level of protection against radiofrequency interference and a clear path for resolving potential interference from other licensees.

DISCONNECTS, IRONY

UTC's Ditto said there seems to be a disconnect at the FCC that causes the utility sector's concerns to be constantly dismissed. Instead, the FCC listens to technology and telecommunications companies "over the needs of critical infrastructure, and that's across the board," she asserted.

"And what is ironic to us and concerning to us is you can't provision telecommunication networks without electricity in the first place," Ditto said. "So just speaking for the electricity side, it makes no sense to us that you would undermine our ability to provision electricity because it helps provision telecommunications."

In addition to failing to sufficiently mitigate the risk of interference, the FCC's proposal does "not provide electric companies and other incumbent ? licensees with the capability to investigate and resolve instances of interference that might occur," the trade groups said.

If the band is opened to unlicensed operations, it will be critical for the FCC to impose rules that prevent interference from ever occurring rather than depend "on post hoc remedies that will be far too little too late to correct the consequences of interference to mission-critical communications microwave systems in the band," the groups said.

Further, the trade groups argued that other spectrum exists that is currently being used for mobile services that could be opened to support the unlicensed operations envisioned by the FCC.

"The public interest in Wi-Fi and mobile services cannot outweigh the critical importance of maintaining safe, reliable and affordable electric and oil [and] gas services, particularly when there are alternative bands that could be used for Wi-Fi and mobile services that would not threaten the reliability of utility, oil and gas services," the groups said in their comments.

-- Jasmin Melvin, newsdesk@spglobal.com

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