AT&T and Nokia this week announced a joint plan designed to address utilities’ long-stated need to access broadband spectrum to support critical communications. The offering calls for AT&T to lease its spectrum for 15 years to utilities, which would pay for the deployment of private LTE networks using Nokia technology.

Utility officials have been outspoken in recent year about their desire to use broadband communications to support myriad automated smart-grid applications—from critical core functions that impact the reliability of their systems to remote-monitoring solutions that promise to improve efficiencies and customer convenience.

Leveraging low-latency, high-capacity LTE makes sense from a technical perspective. However, most carrier LTE networks do not provide the kind of coverage and performance guarantees—notably service in very remote areas and prioritized handling of critical data packets—that utilities need. In addition, many utilities prefer to have their critical communications on a private network, for operational and regulatory reasons.

Unveiled this week at the DistribuTech Conference in Orlando, Fla., the AT&T/Nokia proposal is designed to address these issues. A utility would pay AT&T for a 15-year lease to the carrier’s licensed spectrum—an arrangement that provides much greater protection from potential interference than utilizing unlicensed spectrum—and would build their own Field Area Networks (FANs) with Nokia solutions where they are needed within the utility’s territory.

“Nokia and AT&T are addressing the challenges faced by utilities,” Michael Troiano, AT&T Mobility’s vice president of Internet of Things (IoT) solutions, said in a prepared statement. “Together, our spectrum and Nokia's LTE technology gives utilities the opportunity to update their FAN. They can have confidence these networks will perform to their requirements—now and in the future.”

Kamal Ballout, vice president of Nokia’s global enterprise and public-sector unit in North America, echoed this sentiment.

“This joint solution offers utilities a new opportunity to modernize their field area network with a single, industry standards-based private broadband network,” Ballout said in a prepared statement. “Its end-to-end security approach, coupled with the ability to utilize AT&T's commercial wireless network—where and when their own private network is inaccessible—will deliver exceptional service continuity for today’s critical grid applications, along with true broadband capacity as the future distribution grid evolves.”

AT&T did not disclose which frequencies in its varied spectrum holdings it would be willing to lease to utilities. Brett Kilbourne, vice president of government and industry affairs at the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC), said it is “it’s a good chunk of spectrum; it’s got to meet our capacity requirements.” Kilbourne did acknowledge that the AT&T proposal would include more spectrum than the 6 MHz, in a 3x3 MHz block, proposed by pdvWireless, spectrum-lease, a company headed by former Nextel Communications executives, including Morgan O’Brien, Brian McAuley and John Pescatore.