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Utility sector asks FERC to nudge FCC on spectrum proposal

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Power, communications sectors at odds over spectrum proposal

Both sides eye field testing as positive step

Washington — As the electric utility sector continues its effort to dissuade the Federal Communications Commission from opening up a wireless communications band heavily used by utilities to unlicensed use, industry officials said some nudging from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would be helpful.

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"Opening the band to unlicensed use based on untested technology is an intolerable risk for utilities," as it increases the potential for radio frequency interference that could disrupt communications systems that underpin the safety and reliability of the grid, Utilities Technology Council President and CEO Joy Ditto said Thursday.

Speaking at FERC's annual technical conference (AD19-13) on the reliability of the bulk power system, Ditto told commissioners that the FCC's proposal would strip utilities of an essential reliability tool as the threat of interference calls into question use of the 6 GHz spectrum band that serves as the backbone for private communications networks operated by oil and gas operations and electric companies.

FERC, she said, could help by weighing in on utility reliability expectations and by pushing the FCC, if it is intent on opening the 6 GHz band, to at least mandate field testing of interference mitigation technology.

APPARENT DISCONNECT

As part of its rulemaking process, the FCC is examining how to protect incumbent licensees from harmful interference, creating "a big opportunity" for FERC "to engage with the FCC on these issues that impact grid safety, reliability and really the cost-effectiveness of our system to our customers," JP Brummond, vice president of business planning at Alliant Energy, said.

Brummond, representing the Edison Electric Institute, added that the industry does "not see a clear and immediate alternative to using the 6 GHz band to ensure mission-critical operations, especially in times of disaster," increasing the need for the energy sector's voice to be heard at the FCC.

FERC Commissioner Bernard McNamee pointed to a disconnect between the energy and communications sectors over the concept of reliable service.

"It seems to me that there may be a fundamental problem that FCC-speak about what is tolerable and FERC-speak about what's tolerable are two different standards," he said. "We're not saying the same things, so we're not able to get a proper resolution to it."

The proposed rule at issue 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 and usher in new 5G services.

INTERFERENCE MITIGATION

Supporters of the FCC proposal, including technology and telecom companies, have touted the agency's plan to mitigate interference to incumbent licensees through an automated frequency coordination system.

John Kuzin, vice president and regulatory counsel for smartphone chip developer Qualcomm, said his company would not be supporting unlicensed use in the 6 GHz band if it believed incumbent users would not be protected. "Because the incumbent links are fixed and their operational parameters are in a public FCC database, protecting them is relatively straightforward," he asserted.

Further, he contended that the FCC would not move forward with the rule until it was convinced that no harmful interference would affect utilities and other licensees.

Kuzin offered no pushback to conducting field testing on the caveat that it is limited to confirming the viability of sharing the spectrum band among licensed and unlicensed users, "but I caution against having an 18-month test plan that takes one year to define, 18 months to carry out, another year to write up a report and then we're in 2024," he said.

Ditto countered that while this was "great to hear," the utility sector to date remained unconvinced that the proposed AFC system would provide adequate interference mitigation.

"While we all have perhaps the same goal, the process so far has been one that the outcome seems to be presupposed," she said, noting FCC commissioners' comments during public forums suggesting the rule would move forward by fourth quarter of this year.

-- Jasmin Melvin, jasmin.melvin@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Valarie Jackson, newsdesk@spglobal.com