Speakers say utilities should partner with public safety for 700 MHz broadband
ORLANDO — Starving for spectrum to support broadband applications for the smart grid, it is time for U.S. utilities to proactively seek access to appropriate frequencies — the 700 MHz swath that will be the spectral foundation for a nationwide public-safety LTE network — according to panelists at the Utilities Telecom Council.
“Don’t wait for that opportunity; make that opportunity,” said Matt Schnell, telecommunications supervisor for the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD). “You can’t wait for public safety to ask you to join them — they just won’t do it … They are not going to come look for us and say, ‘Hey, come and join us and work with us on this.’
“You have to go to them and create those opportunities for relationships.”
NPPD has partnered with the state patrol in Nebraska to build a statewide interoperable VHF system that is designed to be more robust than either the utility or public safety could have afforded to build on its own, Schnell said. Similar partnerships between utilities and public safety can be forged in the broadband arena, as well.
Utilities and public safety are logical communications partners, because both groups have high reliability requirements, particularly as they respond to events that can lead to commercial-carrier networks being overloaded or otherwise unavailable, Schnell said. In addition, while Congress has granted public safety 20 MHz of contiguous spectrum in the 700 MHz band for a LTE network, the $7 billion earmarked for the buildout of the network is not nearly enough to deploy 4G cellular technology throughout the nation, according to most industry sources.
By partnering with utilities, public safety can leverage the steady revenue streams of utilities to help pay for the network, both in terms of initial capital costs — base-station sites and backhaul–and ongoing maintenance expenses. In addition, having utility users on the network could greatly increase the economies of scale associated with the network, which could lead to lower prices and greater device innovation.
“Now is the time to act,” Schnell said. “[Public-safety entities] don’t have enough money, and they are looking for infrastructure, so there are things we can offer them.”
Meanwhile, utilities should be very motivated to pursue such arrangements, according to Mark Madden, Alcatel-Lucent’s regional vice president for North American utilities. Utilities have wanted dedicated broadband spectrum for their applications for years, but the combination of circumstances — a shortage of airwaves needed for the ever-growing commercial wireless industry and the desire by Congress to raise billions of dollars in revenue by auctioning frequencies — means the likelihood of utilities getting dedicated spectrum in near term is “probably zero,” he said.
“The reality of getting spectrum in the future is zero,” Madden said. “There’s just no spectrum out there, and what is out there is being consumed by the PDA on your belt. As we look at the need for 500 MHz of spectrum to support consumer services, the opportunity to put aside even 10 MHz for the utility environment is rapidly diminishing, and I’ll just call it what it is — it’s probably zero. So there’s a limited opportunity here.”
Although utilities likely would have only secondary access to the public-safety network, the prioritization schemes associated with LTE are sophisticated enough that policies can be established in a manner that ensures utilities get the bandwidth they need for their most critical functions even in time of public-safety emergencies, Madden said.
“It’s not dedicated spectrum or a dedicated utility network,” Madden said. “But the technology does support graceful sharing, so [accessing the network on a] secondary basis does not have to equal ruthless pre-emption. It’s going to come down to contractual relationships and making sure the network is architected and managed correctly.”
To make that happen, utilities need to begin forging relationships with potential public-safety partners as soon as possible, while the rules for the 700 MHz public-safety network are still being established, Madden said.
“Each utility stepping up can and will make a difference,” he said. “If you just wait on UTC and all the vendors in the space to do the advocacy for you, we’re not a big enough voice. We really need all the utilities and critical-infrastructure providers out there publicly advocating for sharing in this band and helping determine what those rules are, so you are not left out.
“If you wait two years to start advocacy, you’re done. You’re not going to be able affect it, because the rules are going to be set and the RFPs are going to out. The process of selecting partners for this public-safety network is going to play out over the next three years. If you don’t step in there now, you will be buying services from the carriers.”