ATLANTA—Utilities can realize unprecedented benefits from communications that enable smart-grid functionality, but securing the appropriate wireless spectrum needed to support these applications remains a barrier for many, panelists said during the annual United Telecom Council (UTC) Telecom & Technology 2015 show.

There are numerous spectral options available to utilities, but none are ideal for all uses for utilities, according Tim Godfrey, the principal technical lead for the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which recently conducted a study to evaluate spectrum that would be suitable for field-area networks.

“There is no silver bullet that’s the perfect choice, in terms of being low-cost and providing fast time to deployment,” Godfrey said during last week’s panel discussion.

Jeffrey Sheldon, a partner at Levine, Blaszak, Block & Boothby, echoed this sentiment and noted that utilities should be open to the notion of pursuing a hybrid model for communications that utilize multiple spectrum swaths.

“Consider mixing and matching spectrum,” Sheldon said. “It’s OK to take spectrum from a couple of different bands and radio services and [combine them] for the kind of radio service or network that you want.”

Unlicensed spectrum historically has proven valuable to utilities, because it does not have the burdensome regulations associated with licensed-spectrum deployment. Although useful for applications like automated meter reading—functions that are not time-sensitive in nature—the lack of interference protections in unlicensed bands make such spectrum less than ideal to support low-latency applications that are critical to the core functions of a utility network, according to panelists.

Currently, there is no licensed spectrum allocated specifically for utility or critical-infrastructure use in the U.S., and the consensus among panelists is that there is little hope of that changing in the foreseeable future. Federal policymakers have made it a priority to make more spectrum available as quickly as possible, but the primary purpose is to auction the airwaves to the highest bidders—an approach that is especially popular in the wake of recent AWS-3 auction that generated more than $41 billion for the U.S. Treasury.

Utilities legally are allowed to participate in spectrum auctions for licensed spectrum, but outbidding deep-pocketed commercial wireless carriers to secure spectrum is not a practical, all panelists agreed.

There are options for utilities to buy or lease licensed spectrum rights on the secondary market, with large spectrum holders like Sprint and Dish Networks possibly being willing to consider long-term deals with utilities, but such deals would have to be negotiated individually, Godfrey said. In addition, 1 MHz slivers of licensed spectrum are available at the right price from licensee like Space Data (at 900 MHz) and Select Spectrum (at 700 MHz).

However, even if a utility is able to secure rights to use licensed spectrum, actually deploying a system on those airwaves can be challenging.