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The Energy Industry Deserves Adequate Spectrum Resources

Date: Sep 15, 2014

Electric utilities, oil and gas companies, and others in the energy industry rely on a variety of communications systems authorized by the Federal Communications Commission to meet their internal wireless communications requirements.  In light of the critical nature of their services, they must have sufficient bandwidth to satisfy their requirements and avoid the interference and congestion problems experienced in sharing spectrum with incompatible radio operations.  Access to dedicated spectrum exclusively for use by energy companies would provide regulatory certainty and lay a solid foundation for the deployment of the Smart Grids, digital oil fields, advanced pipeline controls, and other new technologies necessary to provide these critical services safely, reliably, and efficiently.

Energy companies use radio frequencies to serve a multitude of vital communications functions, including voice and data applications, supervisory control and data acquisition (“SCADA”) communications with remote facilities, the extension of circuits to areas unserved by commercial carriers, monitoring, security and emergency response.  Without additional spectrum, the energy industry’s ability to continue providing critical functions may be placed in jeopardy. 

Electric utilities across the country are implementing advanced communications systems to support Smart Grid initiatives that promote efficiency, reliability, and enhanced responsiveness to trouble reports and outages.  Smart Grid deployments are dependent on wireless technologies that require sufficient RF spectrum resources to maximize the value and sustainability of these deployments. 

Several years ago, the FCC dedicated an entire chapter of its National Broadband Plan to spectrum options in support of Smart Grid deployment.  The Federal government has since invested billions of dollars in grants and loan guarantees to public-private ventures, utilities, manufacturers and cities to aid in Smart Grid deployment.  The FCC, however, has not allocated sufficient new spectrum for electric utilities to fully exploit and deploy Smart Grid technology. September 11th and Hurricane Katrina underscored the critical need for electric utilities, oil and gas companies and others in the energy industries to have access to reliable and secure communications over a hardened network during times of emergency.

Response activities essential for the energy industry to protect safety and restore service are dependent on sufficient spectrum resources. Unfortunately, over time, the FCC has reallocated large amounts of bandwidth away from the critical infrastructure industries to other applications and uses that do not require the levels of reliability and security associated with critical infrastructure wireless communications. As a result, there is a shortage of channels currently available to satisfy many of the energy industry’s critical requirements. 

For example, the licensed portion of the 2 GHz band, once the mainstay of long-haul Private Operational Fixed Microwave Services, is now allocated to Personal Communications Services (PCS), Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) and Mobile Satellite Services (MSS).  Many displaced private users tried to relocate to the 4 GHz and 6 GHz bands, the next-best options for long-haul links, but satellite earth stations, which are routinely coordinated and licensed for the entire band and satellite arc, block many coordination efforts in those bands.   

In 2001 the FCC auctioned much of the multiple address spectrum in the 928/952 and 932/941 MHz bands.  This spectrum was one of the few options for exclusive point-to-multipoint communications in the energy industry.  Much of it was acquired by “spectrum speculators” and remains grossly underutilized to this day.

More recently – and perhaps most troubling for the energy industry – is the Commission’s proposal to change the 3.65 GHz band established in 2007.  That band offers 50 MHz of spectrum licensed under a “hybrid” system to electric utilities and oil and gas companies, among other entities.  The band is now heavily used by critical infrastructure entities, with more than 2,600 licensees operating at tens of thousands of sites throughout the country. 

If adopted, the Commission’s current proposal would scrap this successful regulatory regime and repurpose this band by creating a “Citizens Broadband Radio Service.”  Critical infrastructure entities would have five years to transition from the band.  The Utilities Telecom Council, the American Petroleum Institute, and others in the energy industry have filed comments arguing that the Commission should preserve 3.65 GHz for a number of reasons, including the substantial investment already made by energy companies to deploy systems in the band. 

Reallocating spectrum from critical infrastructure companies to consumer and commercial users and then repurposing highly desirable and widely utilized spectrum for use by a “Citizens Band Radio Service” is not a viable, long-term public policy.  Access to dedicated spectrum is the best way to ensure that the energy industry can remain competitive and deploy the next generation of technology, including Smart Grids.  The FCC and other government agencies need to ensure that these critical applications are supported by sufficient spectrum resources.

Doug Jarrett (jarrett@khlaw.com; 202.434.4180)

Greg Kunkle (kunkle@khlaw.com; 202.434.4178)

Wes Wright (wright@khlaw.com; 202.434.4239)