Utilities would like to partner with FirstNet to gain access to its 700 MHz broadband spectrum, even if an initiative to transition some 900 MHz LMR spectrum to LTE is successful and provides utilities with priority access in that band, an official with the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) said during a session at IWCE 2014.

UTC and two other wireless trade organizations—the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA)—have talked with the FCC about a proposal to reconfigure 5x5 MHz of 900 MHz spectrum used for LMR into a 3x3 MHz contiguous swath for LTE operations and a 2x2 MHz swath to support LMR systems.

If this vision becomes a reality, utilities are expected to be a primary user of the proposed LTE spectrum to support applications associated with smart-grid technology. But even being given priority access to the 3x3 LTE spectrum at 900 MHz would not preclude utilities from partnering with FirstNet to use its 10x10 MHz frequencies in the 700 MHz band, according to Brett Kilbourne, UTC’s vice president of government and industry affairs.

“The bottom line here is that we’re still actively pursuing all strategies for utility companies to get access to broadband spectrum,” Kilbourne said during an IWCE session on potential FirstNet partnerships. “The problem is, we don’t have any wide-area broadband spectrum—nothing dedicated, at least. So, we’re forced to rely on unlicensed [spectrum], and that’s not a good place to be, quite frankly, for mission-critical [communications].”

“I think we still need 700 MHz [spectrum], even if we get 900 MHz.”

Utilities are a logical partner for FirstNet, because they have similar operational needs as public safety, in that utilities need a dedicated network that is hardened to work under the most difficult of circumstances, including those that cause commercial wireless carrier networks to be unavailable, Kilbourne said. In addition, utilities can provide valuable assets—hardened sites and fiber backhaul—to FirstNet that can bolster the business model for the proposed nationwide public-safety broadband network (PSBN).

What utilities are seeking is an assurance that the FirstNet system will be hardened to utility-grade/public-safety-grade reliability standards and that certain crucial utility applications are not subject to preemption by public safety, Kilbourne said. Utility officials repeatedly have noted that many smart-grid application could be turned off during an emergency response to allow public safety to use more capacity on a shared network, but there are some low-bandwidth applications critical to ensuring that utility networks are functioning that require priority access.

“If we’re going to be riding on this PSBN, we want to see this built out to public-safety-grade standards, in terms of coverage and reliability,” Kilbourne said. “We think we can help. We would like to be able to help. We would like to have a seat at the table, and we would like to try to discuss priority access.”