Utilities need to act during this window of opportunity
ORLANDO — The spectral message here at the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) annual conference to attendees is clear: Utilities should pursue partnerships that will let them access the nationwide public-safety LTE network being built in the 700MHz band to support smart-grid broadband applications. And there is a sense of urgency in the message, because the likelihood of utilities obtaining dedicated broadband spectrum in the near future is virtually nonexistent.
Of course, partnerships require give and take. Fortunately, utilities have a lot of assets they can bring to table, including backhaul, base-station sites, a steady stream of revenue and a significant user base that can help the economies of scale associated with network, which would also make it more affordable for public safety.
Furthermore, there appear no technological problems associated with such a partnership. Utilities need a certain amount of guaranteed network capacity for relatively low-bandwidth applications, but the nuanced prioritization capabilities of LTE should be able to address the needs of both utilities and public safety.
In other words, the makings of a mutually beneficial arrangement appear to be in place — both utilities and public safety have similar communications-reliability needs, and each side brings assets to the table that complement the other. Add in the fact that ensuring that utilities and public safety can interoperate during times of crises is in the public interest, and there appears to be plenty of motivation to get a deal done.
What’s not clear is how to make it happen. Putting politics aside — a subject for other columns — one of the problems with forging a partnership with utilities is determining who should be at the table to represent the sector’s interests.
This is vital, because the reality is that the 700 MHz network is designed to serve the communications needs of public safety, and the network needs to be deployed as quickly as possible. That means there is not time to cut separate deals with every single for-profit and not-for-profit utility, particularly when public safety has several potential partners — other critical-infrastructure providers and, most notably, commercial carriers — also wanting access to its spectrum.
It’s time for utilities to work together and establish at least a framework for what they would want included in a sharing arrangement on the public-safety LTE network. Legal nuances may require some different criteria — for instance, for-profit utilities and not-for-profit utilities may not be able to do everything the same — but the fundamentals should be similar across the board.
Finally, utilities should try to speak with a single voice, if at all possible. It’s the way to get things done at this level, as public safety demonstrated in getting the legislation passed in the first place to enable the network to become a reality. Mixed messages from lots of sources in a sector only create uncertainty and delay, and that needs to be avoided in this situation, because the government and public safety certainly appear to be motivated to move quickly on the network after the FirstNet board is established.
While it’s logical that a trade organization like UTC play a key part in filling this role, the utility industry may be better served if a new group is established to provide direction for this particular purpose. Indeed, it was the ad-hoc Public Safety Alliance that led public safety’s lobbying effort for the D Block, not established organizations like the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) or the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).
Whether UTC, another organization or some new entity fills the role, the key is that utilities take the steps necessary to establish their position on potential sharing arrangements and to clearly articulate that position to NTIA, FirstNet and public safety. Admittedly, this is much easier said than done, but the potential rewards are certainly worthy of the considerable effort.
After all, if utilities miss this one-time opportunity, it could be decades — if ever — before they can get the spectrum needed to make their ambitious smart-grid visions a reality. On the other hand, if done properly, this 700 MHz broadband network can be used to address two major policy initiatives — long-term communications for public safety and the smart grid — more efficiently and effectively than either sector could possibly execute alone, while benefiting the general public on both fronts.
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