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Trade groups urge DOE to fight FCC plan seen as threat to utilities' networks

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Trade groups urge DOE to fight FCC plan seen as threat to utilities' networks

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Groups warn of 'significant reliability concerns'

DOE says is aware of FCC spectrum proposal

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A coalition of major trade groups challenging a Federal Communications Commission proposal they say would threaten grid reliability and heighten outage risks by opening up a wireless communications band heavily used by utilities to unlicensed use has turned attention to the Department of Energy to help ensure that grid operations are protected.

US airwaves known as spectrum are the invisible infrastructure needed for wireless services. The FCC launched a proceeding in October to consider allowing unlicensed operations on the 6 GHz spectrum band.

The American Public Power Association, American Water Works Association, Edison Electric Institute, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Nuclear Energy Institute and Utilities Technology Council told DOE in a July 16 letter that the proposed FCC rule "would likely cause significant reliability concerns" for the electric, natural gas and water sectors.

UTC President and CEO Joy Ditto added in a statement Friday: "The FCC has a choice to make -- it can choose to protect these critical infrastructure industries that rely on this band for essential functions, or it can choose to add an unnecessary and unacceptable risk to these communications."

Mission-critical operations

Impacted infrastructure would include 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.

"Often overlooked, these networks provide critical situational awareness, underpin safety functions, and enable crews to safely repair and restore services after storms," the trade group letter noted. "In addition, these communications networks support the greater deployment of distributed energy resources, smart meters and other technologies to enable the more flexible grids associated with the transition to the utility of the future."

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

The threat of radiofrequency interference brought on by unlicensed use of the airwaves at issue could force power and gas companies into a costly, multi-year rebuild of parts of their networks, the trade groups asserted.

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.

While energy stakeholders acknowledged in the letter "the importance of using spectrum more efficiently to meet our nation's growing wireless needs," they have argued that other spectrum exists that could be opened to support the unlicensed operations envisioned by the FCC without undermining the ability to provide electricity that supports "the very devices and services the FCC wishes to expand."

Jump on the bandwagon

With a key senator and members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently expressing concern over the proposal, the trade groups urged DOE to jump on the bandwagon and "hold a public conference or, at the very least, encourage the FCC to ensure that its final rule contains adequate, tested, and proven measures to protect the [critical-infrastructure] industries which power our ways of life."

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski, Republican-Alaska, sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai June 14 asking whether and how the telecom regulator consulted with FERC and other energy stakeholders on the proposal.

FERC tackled the issue during a session of its annual reliability technical conference June 27. The discussion with energy, wireless and technology industry representatives highlighted different spectrum needs and tolerance for interference. FERC Commissioner Bernard McNamee went as far as to suggest a disconnect between the energy and communications sectors over the concept of reliable service.

A DOE spokesperson confirmed receipt of the trade groups' letter and said the department was aware of the FCC proposal. "We appreciate input from our stakeholders and plan to respond to them through the proper channels," the spokesperson said in an email Friday.

"It is becoming clear that members of Congress and FERC are recognizing the criticality of utilities' communications networks to the reliability and resilience of the grid," Ditto said. "We are hopeful that their attention to this matter will put the FCC on notice that their actions will have consequences on critical infrastructure of all types, from electricity, water, and natural gas to public safety."

Because of the importance of the information being transmitted in the 6 GHz 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.

Mitigation solution untested

"Due to the criticality of these networks, electric utilities cannot tolerate even the slightest risk that these communications systems could be degraded, as diminished situational awareness can result in degraded electricity reliability," the trade groups' letter to DOE said. "Having continued interference-free access to this licensed spectrum ensures greater reliability and resilience."

As drafted, the proposed FCC rule would mitigate interference to incumbent licensees through an automated frequency coordination (AFC) system.

"Unfortunately, the FCC's AFC system is unproven and untested, and even those who support the concept cannot guarantee it will prevent harmful interference consistently and reliably," the groups told DOE.

These concerns have been echoed by the public safety sector, which uses the 6 GHz band as backhaul of 9-1-1 dispatch and first responder radio communications.

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

-- Edited by Maya Weber, newsdesk@spglobal.com