FCC votes early to advance 900 MHz broadband proposal from pdvWireless
FCC commissioners yesterday voted unanimously to adopt a long-awaited notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would let pdvWireless consolidate its many slivers of 900 MHz narrowband spectrum into a 3×3 MHz swath that could support dedicated LTE broadband services for utilities and other enterprises.
FCC commissioners initially were scheduled to vote on the 900 MHz broadband proposal during its open meeting on Friday, but the item was removed from the agenda yesterday, when all five commissioners expressed support for the measure. When the NPRM comment period is complete, the FCC would be in a position to consider a final rulemaking on the matter.
Morgan O’Brien, CEO of pdvWireless, described the draft version of the NPRM—the final text was released just before this article was posted—as a “terrific” document.
“We’re very grateful to the FCC,” O’Brien said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It’s a good NPRM that leaves us with some work to do, and we’re dedicated to getting that done getting this into a report and order.
“We were looking for a couple of key things. One was the confidence that significant amounts of that 900 MHz spectrum could be repurposed for broadband and should be repurposed.”
Comments on the NPRM will be due 60 days after a notice has been published in the Federal Register, according to the FCC. Reply comment will be due 90 days after the Federal Register notice is published.
For pdvWireless officials, getting to this stage has been a lengthy process. The notion of transitioning 900 MHz narrowband spectrum—purchased from Sprint, when the carrier no longer needed the frequencies to support operations as part of the 800 MHz rebanding initiative—initially was proposed in the fall of 2014. After the FCC issued a notice of inquiry on the proposal in August 2017, pdvWireless revamped its proposal last May to give prospective enterprise customers greater control over the broadband LTE networks serving them.
This approach, along with some adjustments designed to address potential interference concerns, has generated much more support from incumbent licensees for the pdvWireless broadband proposal, O’Brien said.
“I would say that the bulk of the opposition is now behind us,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to get to that point, but I think we have done that.
“Anytime you insert a new kind of operation into an existing band, the incumbents—and there always are incumbents—have operations that they’re rightfully concerned about. We have to make sure that the transition goes smoothly. That’s true for us, in particular, because a lot of our intended customers are utilities, so we don’t want to have unhappy utilities out there … We also have an awful lot of utilities lining up—they want to go for broadband, so they’re on our side.”
Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA) President and CEO Mark Crosby also said he is glad to see the pdvWireless proposal reach this stage.
“It’s been four years [since the 900 MHz broadband notion was first proposed],” Crosby said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “It’s time to more thoroughly vet this opportunity to create a broadband potential asset for business enterprises.”
Robert Schwartz, president and COO for pdvWireless, echoed this sentiment.
“We thank Chairman Pai and the Commissioners for adopting the 900 MHz NPRM, taking us one step closer to unlocking the full potential that this spectrum band has to offer,” Schwartz said in a prepared statement.
“Designating this valuable spectrum for broadband will allow innovation and investment to flow, bringing the benefits of broadband to a new range of private enterprise customers, including utilities and other critical enterprise entities. We at PDV believe that private, secure wireless networks, which are essential to securing our nation’s grid and providing broadband to private enterprise, are a perfect fit for this block of spectrum.”
Although the FCC approved the NPRM yesterday, the final text of the proposal was not released until shortly before the posting of this article. Utilities Technology Council (UTC) President and CEO Joy Ditto noted that UTC officials are “still reviewing” the language of the proposal carefully to ensure that incumbent narrowband use of the 900 MHz spectrum.
“UTC supports efforts to provide broadband spectrum access to utilities and other critical-infrastructure industries (CII),” Ditto said in a prepared statement provided to IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “At the same time, UTC wants to ensure that access to broadband spectrum does not result in harmful interference to utility mission-critical voice and data narrowband private land-mobile radio systems.
“We have not yet seen the text of the notice of proposed rulemaking on realigning the 900 MHz spectrum band the Federal communications Commission approved earlier this week. There are a few details that we will be analyzing as we prepare our formal comments; one in particular is ensuring that the proposal’s eligibility requirements do not prohibit utilities and other 900 MHz Business/Industrial/Land Transportation licensees from applying for a broadband license. As we conduct our review, we will work with our core utility members to ensure their needs and concerns are addressed.”
Utilities have long expressed a desire to have access to broadband spectrum, particularly as smart-grid technologies have been developed that promise to enhance reliability and efficiency—and, potentially, the security—of vast systems that deliver electricity, gas and water to residential and enterprise customers. However, the FCC and Congress have not allocated any radio airwaves for utility use, and utilities have not tried in earnest to bid against deep-pocketed commercial wireless carriers on spectrum that the FCC has auctioned.
In recent years, utilities officials have discussed numerous options to address this spectrum issue, including adopting commercial wireless services, utilizing CBRS spectrum at 3.5 GHz, or sharing FirstNet 700 MHz or public-safety 4.9 GHz frequencies with first responders.
However, none of these options have materialized as a clear choice for the utility community, which has significant resiliency requirements, a need for prioritized access to a network and a requirement for coverage in sparsely populated locations that typically are not economically feasible for commercial carriers.
For instance, some have proposed that utilities subscribe to FirstNet, because utilities have similar reliability and coverage requirements. Utilities are allowed to subscribe to FirstNet, but they would be considered “extended primary” users that theoretically could be preempted by first responders during a large incident. Meanwhile, there are questions when FirstNet would provide the coverage that utilities need.
The revamped pdvWireless proposal would let utilities or other enterprises control how and where the LTE network is deployed. Although a system utilizing pdvWireless spectrum would have access to much less bandwidth than a carrier has in its broadband network, O’Brien noted that the 3×3 MHz swath of spectrum can supply substantial capacity for a utility or other enterprise.
“3×3 [MHz] with LTE is a ton of capacity, and a lot of these systems are widespread, so you can get an awful lot of reuse of spectrum in that kind of a configuration,” O’Brien said. “So, for many, many use cases, there’s going to be plenty of spectrum, at least for the first couple of years.”
If more spectrum is needed, many have noted that it could be used for the most critical elements and other applications could be supported by an alternative broadband solution that leverage other spectrum resources, such the unlicensed 900 MHz or CBRS.
“We talk about 900 MHz as being foundational,” O’Brien said. “You build a wireless foundation at 900 MHz, and then you can add additional types of spectrum—through carrier aggregation and other ways—to supplement that. We hoping to see our spectrum in a foundational deployment by these critical-infrastructure companies.
“The [initial LTE] infrastructure is expensive. Part of the charm of our proposal is combining a lot of different use cases on one set of infrastructure to reduce costs.”
With this in mind, utilities may want to consider partnership arrangements with other enterprises, particularly when providing broadband coverage in hard-to-serve rural locations, O’Brien said.
“Once they’ve done it, in a lot of these rural areas, it makes so much sense for them to share those facilities with others—not only public safety but railroads and others,” he said.
“There’s a potential for utilities to look at communications as a service and for them to go in and not only provide it to themselves. You could say, ‘If the electric utility’s doing it, then the water utility should piggybank on that same infrastructure. The gas company should use the same infrastructure. Smart cities—think about traffic lights—should use the same infrastructure, because the public’s paying for it through the [utility] rate base.”