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Groups ask appeals court to vacate order

Washington — The electric utility sector has accused the US telecom regulator of acting unlawfully and against the public interest in a recent lawsuit challenging an order that allows a host of new wireless devices to use airwaves that have long been relied on for utilities' mission-critical operations.

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US airwaves known as spectrum are the invisible infrastructure needed for wireless services. New rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in April make 1,200 megahertz of spectrum on the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed operations.

That band houses private communications networks deployed by power plants, electric transmission lines, gas pipelines, control centers, substations and other energy assets for their mission-critical operations.

The FCC's decision effectively increases the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi by a factor of nearly five, creating greater capacity to support more devices and faster speeds.

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.

Petition for review

The Utilities Technology Council, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and American Public Power Association have taken their concerns to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals (Utilities Technology Council, et al v. FCC, 20-1281).

The petition for review asks the court to vacate aspects of the order that "unlawfully authorize unlicensed low power indoor operations without sufficient safeguards to prevent harmful interference to licensed operations," and that are "arbitrary and capricious in failing to adequately consider studies on the record that show that unlicensed operations will cause harmful interference to licensed systems," according to court documents.

"From the beginning of this proceeding, we urged the [FCC] to fully vet and test its theories and assumptions that it could safely permit unlicensed users into a band already heavily used for public safety and essential electricity, water, and natural gas services," UTC President and CEO Sheryl Riggs said in a statement.

"Existing users of the 6 GHz spectrum band offered study after study demonstrating that the FCC's plan was flawed and needed to be revised so as to allow a thorough analysis to prove these new devices could operate without causing interference," Riggs added. "We do not take this step lightly, but feel that taking this matter to court is in the best interest of our members, our industry, and the public."

The DC Circuit set an Aug. 26 deadline for the groups to file a docketing statement and statement of issues in the case.

Interference mitigation

Major trade groups in the energy space as well as the public safety industry pressed the FCC to mandate a robust automated frequency coordination (AFC) system for unlicensed operations at all power levels to mitigate interference to incumbent licensees, and to require testing of that system to prove its ability to prevent harmful interference. The order does neither.

Instead, under the order, only standard-power devices must transmit under the control of an AFC system, with no such requirement for indoor low-power operations. And 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.

Comments jointly filed by UTC, APPA, NRECA, American Gas Association and American Water Works Association on the new NOPR urge the FCC to "refrain from authorizing any further unlicensed operation in the 6 GHz band at this time."

The groups point to "insufficient empirical data and real-world experience to support" rule changes that would loosen power restrictions on devices that can access the 6 GHz band. "If anything, the [FCC] should reduce the power of these unlicensed operations and/or require them to be controlled using [AFC]," the filing said.

Of note, field testing conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute found instances of harmful interference to utility microwave systems by unlicensed operations of devices operating under the rules authorized by the FCC "at locations that would presumably be inside an AFC exclusion zone." The interference levels ranged from severe to very severe and the impact of the interference caused the microwave links to fail completely, according to a summary report EPRI released July 24.