Utilities seek FCC rule change on fixed uses at 700 MHz
A key national trade organization for the utility sector asked the FCC this week to reconsider its 700 MHz rules to allow network operators to determine priority service on public-safety networks instead of automatically relegating fixed services using the spectrum to secondary status, which could undermine efforts to partner with utilities.
During the past several years, many government officials considering the deployment of 700 MHz public-safety broadband networks have expressed the desire to pursue partnerships with utilities to help share costs and better utilize network capacity. In addition, utilities are positioned to help public safety address power issues, boast considerable right of way for communications site and have similar reliability requirements as first-response agencies.
However, most utility smart-grid applications require monitoring of assets that do not move, so an FCC order last year that calls for mobile applications to be given priority over all fixed applications is a concern for utilities, according to Brett Kilbourne, director of regulatory services and associate counsel for the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC).
“If we can’t use [700 MHz broadband spectrum], for fixed, it doesn’t do us much good, because most of the sites [in utility applications] are going to be fixed,” Kilbourne said, noting that utilities need some assurance that a 700 MHz system shared with public-safety users will be reliable.
Of course, another related issue is whether utilities are allowed to use public-safety broadband spectrum in the 700 MHz under any circumstance, as utilities traditionally have not been considered first responders. In the FCC’s national broadband plan, the agency “strongly implies” that Congress would have to pass a law to allow such sharing of 700 MHz spectrum, Kilbourne said.
“That’s the chicken-or-egg dilemma,” he said, noting that utilities need both the right to use the spectrum and the potential to have utility traffic prioritized at some level to consider a sharing arrangement with public-safety entities.
Another complicating factor in the debate is the amount of spectrum available to public safety. Under current law, public safety has only 10 MHz of broadband spectrum at 700 MHz, which some industry experts believe will be saturated by public-safety users during emergencies, particularly in urban areas.
However, if public safety is successful in convincing Congress to reallocate the 10 MHz D Block to first responders, public safety would have 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum, which would provide enough capacity to allow partnerships with utilities and other entities.
“If there’s only 10 MHz to work with, then most public-safety folks don’t want to share, because they won’t have any capacity,” Kilbourne said. “From that standpoint, we’re trying to support the public-safety guys in terms of the 700 MHz D Block, which ultimately will make or break whether we’re able to share.”
Earlier this week, a group of eight government entities on the state and local levels representing public-safety agencies also asked the FCC to not relegated fixed operations to secondary status, calling the requirement an “unwarranted restriction.”