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Energy groups ask FCC to pull the plug on 6 GHz devices, pursue new rulemaking

Highlights

6 GHz band houses mission-critical power, gas, oil operations

Request immediate stay of equipment authorizations

Cite 'fundamental flaws' in data underlying FCC order

Power, natural gas, and oil groups have again teamed up in a show of force to urge the US telecommunications regulator to hit the brakes on a 2020 regulation allowing new mass-market wireless devices to operate on airwaves long-held by energy and public-safety assets.

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Major energy trade groups along with public safety advocates Dec. 8 filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission seeking new rules to better protect critical infrastructure from radio frequency interference from wireless devices operating on the 6 gigahertz wireless communications band.

At risk, for instance, are utility teleprotection systems that must act within milliseconds to prevent power line faults from escalating and causing power outages or damage to other equipment on the grid 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.

The entities also filed a request for the FCC to immediately issue a temporary stay of any equipment authorizations already granted or pending for unlicensed 6 GHz low-power indoor devices.

The Utilities Technology Council was joined by the Edison Electric Institute, American Public Power Association, American Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, Nuclear Energy Institute, and National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, among other groups, in submitting both filings.

The 6 GHz band houses private communications networks operated by oil and gas operations and electric companies and has long been relied on for utilities' mission-critical operations. Despite heavy opposition from a broad cross-section of the energy industry, the FCC adopted new rules in April 2020 that made 1,200 MHz of spectrum on the 6 GHz band available for unlicensed operations.

The FCC order authorized indoor low-power operations across the entire 6 GHz band and permitted standard-power devices operating indoor or outdoor on sub-bands totaling 850 MHz. Standard-power devices may only transmit under the control of an automated frequency coordination system established to mitigate interference to incumbent licensees. No such restriction was placed on low-power devices nor was any testing required of the AFC system to prove its ability to prevent harmful interference.

New rules

The dozen entities called on the FCC to develop new regulations for 6 GHz LPI devices as they pointed to "fundamental flaws" in the data and assumptions that led the agency to conclude that the risk from interference was insignificant.

The groups also asked the commission to develop a cost-recovery mechanism to cover efforts to resolve interference issues from unlicensed operations. The FCC should test standard-power devices as well to evaluate the need for additional rules to prevent harmful interference in the band, the groups said.

The petitioners pointed to field tests performed by Southern Company, telecommunications engineering firm Lockard & White, and the Electric Power Research Institute that showed 6 GHz LPI devices can cause interference, especially given their constantly transmitting beacon signals that "endanger the functioning of services to public safety and critical infrastructure industries and seriously degrade, obstruct, or repeatedly interrupt their radio communications services."

These signals can come from Wi-Fi routers that, when operating alone without content payload data, exceeded the commission's interference protection threshold in five out of 13 tested configurations, according to the petition. The tests also found that lower bandwidth data sessions caused interference in 11 of 13 tested configurations.

The industry groups called on the FCC to independently test these unlicensed devices to "determine the appropriate limitations" to avoid interference and issue new rules to enforce those protections.

Stay requested

In calling for the stay, the groups asserted that there was "a substantial likelihood" that the FCC would grant their petition for rulemaking, given that the commission never considered the impact of beacon signals.

"Worse, the flawed data was provided by the proponents [of unlicensed operations], who demonstrated a startling lack of candor in failing to disclose the impact of interference from beacon signals, which they knew or should have known would be used by unlicensed 6 GHz LPI devices to communicate from an access point to client devices," the groups said.

They added that they would "suffer imminent and irreparable harm absent a stay of equipment certifications." On the other hand, because market development in the 6 GHz space is in its early stages, any harm from pulling the wireless devices at issue from the market would be transitory and not significant, the groups said.

"A stay would only affect a relatively small number of devices already in the commercial marketplace, and proponents will still be able to achieve their commercial sales expectations once the commission has developed new rules for unlicensed 6 GHz LPI devices that are proven effective at preventing interference to licensed microwave systems in the 6 GHz band," the groups said.