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Against power sector's advice, FCC opens utilities' wireless airwaves to unlicensed use

Highlights

FCC insists order protects incumbents from interference

No field testing of mitigation system mandated

Mitigation mechanism not applied to indoor low-power devices

Washington — The Federal Communications Commission Thursday voted to open a wireless communications band heavily used by utilities to unlicensed use, despite concerns voiced by power and gas companies that such action would threaten grid reliability and heighten outage risks.

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US airwaves known as spectrum are the invisible infrastructure needed for wireless services. New rules adopted by the FCC make 1,200 megahertz of spectrum on the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed operations. That band currently houses private communications networks operated by oil and gas operations and electric companies, and has long been relied on for utilities' mission-critical operations.

FCC commissioners unanimously voted to approve the rules seen as critical to the next generation of Wi-Fi and proliferation of connected, wireless devices during the agency's monthly meeting, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. They pointed to the outbreak, which has prompted teleworking and distance learning at an unprecedented scale across the country, to support their decision, which effectively increases the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi by almost a factor of five.

AT ODDS OVER INTERFERENCE

"At the same time, our approach will ensure that incumbents in the 6 GHz band are protected from harmful interference," Chairman Ajit Pai said.

Thursday's order authorizes indoor low-power operations across the entire 6 GHz band, and permits standard-power devices operating indoor or outdoor on sub-bands totaling 850 megahertz. Standard-power devices may only transmit under the control of an automated frequency coordination (AFC) system established to mitigate interference to incumbent licensees.

But power and gas companies have asserted that a flood of new unlicensed users on the 6 GHz 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.

Prior to the vote, major trade groups in the energy space as well as the public safety industry pressed the FCC to mandate a robust AFC system for unlicensed operations at all power levels and require testing of that system to prove its ability to prevent harmful interference. The order does neither.

Impacted infrastructure includes power plants, electric transmission lines, water and gas pipelines, control centers, substations and other energy and water assets, all of which deploy private communications networks for their mission-critical operations.

At risk, for instance, are utility teleprotection systems that must act within milliseconds to prevent power line faults from escalating and causing damage to other equipment on the grid or power outages, and thus cannot tolerate any interference. And 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.

Faced with such risks, energy companies contend they may need to reengineer and rebuild their communications networks in another spectrum band, a timely and expensive task that may not even be feasible.

'MUCH RISKIER APPROACH'

The Edison Electric Institute expressed dismay with the FCC's order, particularly the absence of interference mitigation controls for all unlicensed devices.

"EEI's member companies remain committed to providing their customers with reliable and secure energy, and we will carefully monitor the band for interference to prevent any significant impacts to mission-critical communications systems," said Phil Moeller, EEI's executive vice president of EEI's business operations group and regulatory affairs. "We also will continue to work with policymakers and other stakeholders to identify ways to mitigate the risk introduced by these unlicensed devices."

With time, additional study and stronger protections for incumbent systems, the 6 GHz band could be opened in such a way that unleashes the new innovations envisioned by the FCC and others while also protecting critical-infrastructure industries already in the band, the Utilities Technology Council said in a statement Thursday.

Yet, "the FCC appears to have decided on taking a much riskier approach that does not control low-power indoor operations using AFC," the UTC said. "Nor does the FCC order provide additional testing to prevent interference from occurring or enforcement processes to resolve interference that does occur."

Instead, the agency launched a further notice of proposed rulemaking to consider an increase of the permitted power level for indoor devices that operate without AFC. The new NOPR would also seek comment on authorizing indoor and outdoor use of devices at very low power levels across the 6 GHz band "to support high data rate applications including high-performance, wearable, augmented-reality and virtual-reality devices," according to an FCC press release.