FCC plans vote on Anterix proposal for 900 MHz private LTE for utilities, enterprises
FCC commissioners next month are expected to approve rules that would let Anterix transition its narrowband LMR spectrum in the 900 MHz band to a contiguous block of private LTE airwaves designed to support mission-critical broadband applications for utilities and other enterprises.
For Anterix—known as pdvWireless until the company changed its name last June—the FCC vote likely will mark the conclusion of an effort that was proposed formally to the FCC more than five years ago to reconfigure interleaved LMR channels in a 3×3 MHz block of spectrum that will enable LTE communications. Repurposing narrowband spectrum to broadband was a notion Anterix CEO Morgan O’Brien first publicly suggested in the fall of 2013.
“We’re very satisfied with the FCC process here,” O’Brien said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We think the FCC, over 5-and-a-half tough years, has done a great job listening to everybody. I believe that there are 250 filings on the record. To work through that and get to a reasonable outcome, that’s tough.
“The good news is that—as best we can tell—the process we’ve gone through has resulted in a pretty good decision that represents a win for the utility industry, a win for the FCC, a win for us. It’s pretty balanced all around, from what we can tell.”
In a blog posted on the FCC web site, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai yesterday announced plans to vote on the 900 MHz private broadband item during the commission’s May 13 meeting. The FCC initiated a proceeding to consider the Anterix proposal last March.
“Leading off next month’s meeting will be a Report and Order to reconfigure the 900 MHz band for the deployment of broadband services and technologies,” Pai states in his blog. “For decades, this band has been allocated for narrowband communications like two-way dispatch radios used by business, industrial, and land transportation licensees. The draft rules would make available six of the band’s ten megahertz for the deployment of broadband services, while retaining four megahertz to continue incumbent narrowband operations.
“The new regulatory framework would allow 900 MHz licensees, like utilities, to obtain broadband licenses and would include operational and technical rules to minimize harmful interference to narrowband operations. To facilitate the quick transition to broadband services, we would use a market-driven process that primarily relies on negotiated agreements between interested parties.”
FCC approval would represent a remarkable turnaround for the LMR-to-LTE reconfiguration notion, which was viewed initially with considerable skepticism by the same utilities that were supposed to be the primary customers of the 900 MHz private broadband systems—a new concept when it was proposed in 2014. Today, many of those utilities that expressed concerns initially are some of the biggest proponents of the Anterix plan.
“It amazing for a sector like the utility industry—as conservative as they are—that we’ve gone as far as we have in advance of this rulemaking,” Anterix President and COO Rob Schwartz said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “Really, it’s with the support of these utilities that allowed us to get here today.
“If you go back on the record, you will see that some of our strongest supporters today … like Southern, Ameren and others are folks who initially were opposed to the idea, not knowing what it was and why it should happen. Now, the tables have turned completely, and the industry—as a collective—is going to the FCC regularly and saying, ‘We need broadband, and we need to solve these problems.’”
O’Brien said a key change in the 900 MHz private-broadband proposal was when Anterix indicated its willingness to make the spectrum reconfiguration voluntary for the incumbent utilities with the largest and most complex LMR systems.
“To me, the best arguments that were made against us were the ones that said, ‘If you have a system of a certain size and complexity operating in the band, it’s going to be very difficult to retune it. Even if you step up and offer to pay for comparable-facility prices, it’s difficult,’” O’Brien said.
“In markets that have complex systems, it can only be a voluntary arrangement to go broadband or not—actually, more than half of the top 22 markets that fall into that voluntary category. This was a suggestion that we made as a way to reduce some of the tension, because some of these very large systems obviously were struggling with how they could retune.
“Once it became voluntary-only in those cases with the complex systems, it opens the door to mutual discussion and agreement We’re in very productive discussions with a bunch of those guys, because now there’s no sword hanging over their heads. All we can do is something that’s cooperative, and it seems like we’re going to be able to.”
Operationally, some of the most immediate challenges facing electric utilities is the need to automate key functions, such as integrating renewable energy sources—such as solar panels on homes and building—dynamically in near real time or to have a recloser shut off power to severed power line to prevent a fire from igniting.
Schwartz said 11 utilities have participated in six trials using the proposed Anterix broadband spectrum to determine whether private LTE would meet their needs. Ameren—a utility that provides electricity in most of Missouri and part of Illinois—already has announced plans to deploy a private LTE network in cooperation with Anterix, if the company gets approval from the FCC.
“As Ameren got closer to realizing the need, we did a pilot with them,” Schwartz said. “They tested 14 different uses cases in which they demonstrated all kinds of very valuable things that are essential for the command and control of their network.
“The difference between utilities and other industrial sectors is that utilities have always run private networks. Ameren has over a dozen different networks that they were running—their SCADA system, their LMR system, their AMI meter-reading system and others. For them, owning and operating a network was not a far-fetched idea … What really drove them was having the level of resiliency and security that they require.”
By using Anterix spectrum, utilities can control which network functions need the highest priority on the network. In many cases, utilities’ most important applications do not require a great deal of bandwidth, but the actions need to be performed very little latency—something that is achievable with LTE technology, O’Brien said.
“It’s the latency aspect of LTE that makes it so important for those [recloser applications], as opposed to downloading HD video,” O’Brien said. “Latency is everything, and LTE’s latency at 10 milliseconds … in the [National Renewable Energy Lab] tests, that’s one of the major things they’re testing, to make sure that they have a combination of latency and reliability that only a private LTE system can give them—because it’s uninterruptible by any other user, and it’s got that [low] latency.”
Most people familiar with LTE are accustomed to seeing it deployed by carriers on large swaths of 5×5 MHz or 10×10 MHz of spectrum. However, LTE also can be deployed using smaller spectrum blocks of 1.4×1.4 MHz or 3×3 MHz.
If the FCC approves the Anterix proposal on May 13, utilities and other enterprises—Anterix also has been working with logistics company UPS to test private broadband—could deploy LTE system “quickly,” O’Brien said. That’s because utilities have rights of way, all parties involved have had considerable time to make plans during the FCC proceeding, and because a nationwide 1.4×1.4 MHz block can be cleared “immediately,” he said.
Clearing a 3×3 MHz swath will be more complicated in some areas of the country, because Anterix will have to swap some channels with certain railroad companies to prevent interference. As a veteran of spectrum reconfiguration that resulted in Nextel Communications, O’Brien said he is confident that the Anterix plan is achievable.
“It’s not easy, but it’s actually a smaller retuning process than we’ve done previously,” O’Brien said. “It’s smaller, and therefore, it can be done quicker.
“There’s a lot of technology involved, but there’s also a lot of emotion involved. If we can keep the emotion out of it, we can move relatively quickly. We’ve done a couple of large retunes already cooperatively, with little or no fuss.”
O’Brien said he envisions utilities using Anterix spectrum for mission-critical applications, but other broadband networks will be needed to support higher-bandwidth needs, such as mobile video. These operations could be executed on spectrum such as the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) or on some sort of a carrier network.
One of those carrier network options is FirstNet, built by AT&T. This nationwide public-safety broadband network—a concept first proposed by O’Brien in 2006—promises to have greater resiliency than a typical commercial network and provide coverage in locations that may not be densely populated. Utilities receive “extended primary” prioritization on FirstNet—not the top-level “primary” prioritization enjoyed by police, fire and EMS on FirstNet—but these characteristics align well with utilities’ network requirements, O’Brien said.
“As we go from utility to utility, they’re going to have to make some choices about what it mission-critical and what is not,” O’Brien said. “I think they [utilities] will be using a combination of private and public [broadband], whether it’s private and a normal carrier or private and FirstNet or whatever. It just makes sense.”
“I get often asked, ‘Is your proposal competitive with FirstNet?’ I say, ‘I don’t think so. I think it’s more complementary.’ But we’ll see. These utilities are tough, shrewd purchasers of equipment and technology, and they’re going to have choices to make. We think we’ve got one of the best choices, but we’re not alone out there. They’ve got choices.”
In addition, it may beneficial for utilities to consider coordinating their network buildouts with FirstNet, particularly in rural areas where tower sites and backhaul present challenging economics, according to O’Brien.
“Until we have a report and order [approved by the FCC], we don’t have a broadband license,” O’Brien said. “But as soon as we have a prospect for a broadband license and a customer who wants to build in areas that are challenging to build in—either because of the topography or economics—of course we want to share facilities anywhere we can.
“FirstNet’s a logical party to share all sorts of things with, and also to have as a secondary carrier—us for them and them for us. It makes perfect sense.”