FCC approves Anterix proposal to transition 900 MHz LMR spectrum to LTE use
FCC commissioners today unanimously voted to approve rules that will let Anterix transition its 900 MHz narrowband LMR spectrum to a contiguous block of airwaves that can be used to deliver private LTE services, primarily to support communications for utilities and other critical-infrastructure entities.
Today’s approval of multiple orders addressing the 900 MHz band follows more than five years of debate about the proposal from Anterix, which was called Pacific DataVision when the private LTE broadband notion was suggested initially and operated as pdvWireless from 2015 to 2019.
With the new rules, the FCC clears a path for interleaved LMR channels to be reconfigured as 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
O’Brien described as “awesome” the feelings he has, knowing that the FCC ruling is complete after such a lengthy proceeding.
Anterix President Rob Schwartz echoed this sentiment.
“This order comes at a vital time, as industry demand for private LTE networks is growing but low-band spectrum options to serve these critical needs are scarce,” Schwartz said in a prepared statement. “The FCC has already granted six 900 MHz experimental licenses, involving eleven utilities and one large enterprise, and these pilots have demonstrated some of the substantial benefits that this spectrum modernization can enable.
“These new private LTE networks will offer opportunities for critical infrastructure and enterprise customers to bolster efficiency, resiliency and cybersecurity, and we’re gratified the FCC had the foresight to move forward and recognize the transformative power of broadband.”
Anterix officials have been outspoken that the company plans to target utilities as key users of the 900 MHz private broadband spectrum, and Anterix already has announced deal with Ameren, a St. Louis-based power company. But O’Brien said that benefits 900 MHz private broadband can extend beyond the utility sector.
“All we’ve said, from the outset, is that … we’ll do everything we can to create value on our spectrum and solve a major demand problem,” O’Brien said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “To us, the most visible demand problem was for interconnectivity of the grid elements, so that’s where we’ve gone [the most in preliminary conversations]. But there’s nothing in the rules that require to do that.”
O’Brien also said he believe the Anterix ruling will be replicated many times in the future, as the FCC and the wireless community seek to transform narrowband LMR frequencies to broadband swaths that can support high-speed data communications.
“I think we live in a time in which technology is going to keep driving opportunity, and the opportunity is only going to be realized if the spectrum is made available,” O’Brien said. “There’s no such thing as empty spectrum, so the rearranging of spectrum, and careful process that we’ve gone through here in the last few years is going to be repeated time and time again. The commission has no other choice but to carefully rebalance uses of spectrum, as they did here.
“When it comes to allowing new uses of spectrum, they have no other choice but to go to spectrum that’s already being used and allow it to be repurposed by going through the same process we’ve gone through—a careful balancing of the interests. That’s inevitable, and that’s the process. I think that we’re a bigger story than just this piece of 900 MHz, in that the FCC is acknowledging its willingness … to encourage innovation by doing the hard work.”
But O’Brien emphasized his belief that such narrowband-to-broadband transitions will continue to be challenging, from an execution standpoint.
“Of course, no incumbent has ever welcomed the introduction of new technology on spectrum they’re already using,” he said. “But on the other hand, there is no choice, so it’s an inevitable process. Hopefully, it will be handled like it was handle here—carefully, deliberately and on the record.”
Both fixed and mobile broadband operations can be supported in the 900 MHz band, but O’Brien said that he believes most early efforts to leverage the spectrum likely will be in the fixed category.
“I would say fixed is much more prominent now than mobile,” O’Brien said. “I think there are 14 different use cases that Ameren is currently testing. They are all variations of what used to be called SCADA. There are ways in which, remotely, devices are basically monitored, so things can be turned on and turned off.
“As a fault develops on a line—if you have LTE—within milliseconds, the control room can know that something’s happened 100 miles away, and they can reroute the power, without turning it off or causing a lot of unnecessary blackouts.”
O’Brien said the development of push-to-talk over LTE likely will have a significant impact on the mobile use case at 900 MHz.
“Only when LTE has really been hardened for mission-critical voice—something that FirstNet is working on diligently—do I think you’re going to see very significant use of 900 MHz LTE broadband for mobility, although it’s out there,” O’Brien said. “It will happen, without a doubt.”
One unique aspect of the 900 MHz broadband rules passed by the FCC is that the Anterix spectrum will be allowed to transmit LTE signals from devices utilizing 3 watts of power. While this is typical for LMR devices, it is 15 times greater than the 0.200 watts power used by a typical commercial LTE device. This power level is also more than double the 1.25 watts permitted for high-power user equipment (HPUE) on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed to FirstNet.
Scott Schoepel, Motorola Solutions’ vice president of global enterprise, said having this higher power limit is expected to be especially useful to utilities that already have LMR communications infrastructure within their systems.
“With the power [levels approved by the FCC for the new 900 MHz broadband spectrum], we can replicate LMR coverage with LTE,” Schoepel said during an interview with the IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “We think we can leverage the current land-mobile-radio infrastructure footprint—towers, backhaul, backup power and so forth—to add the LTE capability and replicate the coverage.”
“So, to the extent that we can leverage the existing [LMR] site footprint … you’ll have a truly mission-critical LTE data network sitting right with your mission-critical land-mobile-radio network.”
Schoepel said that the 3-watt LTE products available early for use on the Anterix 900 MHz spectrum will not include handheld devices. As a result, the coverage difference between the fixed and handheld devices will be “noticeable,” he said.
“[The high-power unit] is not for mobile,” Schoepel said. “It’s more for the fixed architecture, for something like the distribution automation [initiatives] for utilities, for example. In June, we’re going to start rolling out a series of edge-device products that leverage that high power—they will probably be 2 watts or 2-plus watts.
“But they will be aimed more at the fixed side in that market—fixed IoT, fixed automation and applications. That’s where we see that power coming into play. At this point, we’re not contemplating a 3-watt [handheld] portable—an equivalent to LMR, if you will.”
When asked about the potential for vehicular devices using the high power levels enabled at 900 MHz, Schoepel said Motorola Solutions is not contemplating such solution at the moment, although the company will be monitoring demand from potential customers to determine if developing such products would be worth pursuing.
O’Brien has 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 widespread mobile video—Anterix can support video, but only on a “pinpoint” basis, due to the limited spectrum. Broader video operations could be executed on spectrum such as the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) or on 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, according to O’Brien.