Anterix inks $50 million deal with San Diego Gas & Electric to support 900 MHz private LTE system
Anterix this week announced a $50 million deal with San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) that will result in the utility becoming the license holder for 900 MHz broadband spectrum that will be used to support a private LTE network that will support smart-grid and wildfire-mitigation initiatives.
For Anterix, the SDG&E contract is the company’s second significant commercial broadband agreement, following a $48 million deal with Ameren that was announced less than two months ago. While inking deals worth $98 million in such a short time period certainly is important to Anterix financially, the strategic benefits of the announcements are even greater, Anterix CEO Rob Schwartz said.
“To me, getting these two important utilities to publicly identify that 900 MHz private LTE is a critical piece of their organizations—for common use cases and unique use cases—is the beginning of what was momentum before, and now we see it as a movement,” Schwartz said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “This is the beginning of a nationwide movement to bring 900 MHz private broadband to utilities across the country.”
Having SDG&E commit to adopting 900 MHz airwaves as part of its broadband spectral foundation—the company also won CBRS spectrum licenses at 3.5 GHz in a recent FCC auction—is important, because SDG&E is recognized as a technology leader in the utility sector, according to Schwartz.
“I do think that, as a technology leader, when they start deploying, it’s going to be very influential on the state government and other utilities in the state in hopefully following pretty soon, so there can be a ubiquitous system with communication between [utility networks],” he said.
“They’re going to help us drive the industry overall—not just in their important area, but throughout the state of California and across the nation. It’s another partner in our coalition that’s driving forward the industry into this nationwide network of networks.”
Schwartz said he is particularly excited about the potential benefit that a 900 MHz private LTE network can bring to SDG&E in terms of helping mitigate the risk of wildfires caused by sparks from downed power lines. With a dedicated LTE system, the expectation is that low-latency communications can be used to automatically de-energize a falling power line before it hits the ground and ignites a fire.
It’s a scenario that SDG&E has been tackling for years, resulting in the utility taking a leadership role in this area, Schwartz said.
“With that leadership and as part of the collaboration component of the agreement, we really see the opportunity to drive not only private LTE but specifically that [wildfire-mitigation] use case across the state and into Washington, Oregon and the rest of the western region that unfortunately has been plagued with wildfires lately,” Schwartz said.
Indeed, SDG&E CEO Caroline Winn acknowledged the need to address the matter in a recent filing about wildfire-mitigation plans. Without an automated method to keep energized power lines from falling to the ground, utilities have opted to turn off electricity entirely to areas near wildfire in an effort to reduce the risk of causing blazes to spread—a tactic that is difficult on customers, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We recognize that our wildfire preparedness efforts are not without significant impacts to our customers, who have shown incredible patience and understanding as we advance our collective goal to protect public safety,” Winn said in the prepared statement. “The pandemic and last year’s extreme weather events not only magnified our responsibility to bring forth solutions that help reduce those impacts, which we will work every day to do, but they also reinforced our commitment to build a more resilient electric system to safeguard our region.”
Schwartz noted that SDG&E also can leverage its private LTE network in other ways, such as coordinating power between disparate sources, including privately owned wind and solar systems.
“They [SDG&E officials] were early in deploying the smart grid into their network; they were early in identifying the value of technology in mitigating wildfires,” Schwartz said. “To me, this [private LTE initiative] is just another position of leadership.
“We’re excited to be driving forward these private LTE networks to solve really important use cases—wildfire mitigation is important, but it’s just the beginning of a long list of opportunities for them to use this network across many use cases.”
Although the announced financial figures in the SDG&E and Ameren deals are similar, there are differences. Perhaps most notably, the Ameren agreement includes a 30-year spectrum lease to 6 MHz of 900 MHz broadband spectrum licensed to Anterix, while SDG&E actually will hold the license to the same swath of spectrum within its service territory—San Diego County, Imperial County and part of Orange County—within a couple of years.
“We’ll be delivering the spectrum, by county, starting in 2022 and completed in 2023,” he said. “We’ve got to clear the incumbents in that broadband spectrum. So, there are some existing licensees in that spectrum that will retune [system to use nearby 900 MHz narrowband spectrum].
“Once we complete that, we apply to the FCC, they grant us a broadband license, and that’s what we transfer to them [to SDG&E].”
Schwartz said the ability for Anterix to adapt agreements to suit the needs of customers—particularly utilities, which can face different requirements in each state as they try to incorporate 900 MHz broadband spectrum into their rate bases—is going to be crucial to the company’s future success. That is especially the case with “complex systems” run by utilities like SDG&E that include more than 25 connected sites, he said.
“Structurally, we’re going to be flexible—these are big companies, and we’ve got to find a way to make it work for them,” Schwartz said. “But at the end of the day, this is another very significant utility committing to using private LTE to support some really mission-critical use cases.
“We think that model of long-term leasing is the core business model of Anterix going forward. But with these complex systems, we’ll need to be more flexible in our structuring [of agreements] and to recognize them as being significant licensees already in the marketplace. The fact that these are voluntary agreements means we’ll work to find win-win solutions for Anterix and for the utilities nationwide.”
In addition to proving that Anterix can address the market for complex systems, the SDG&E deal also marks the first commercial agreement for Anterix that did not have an experimental pilot program as a precursor, Schwartz said. SDG&E did secure an experimental license from the FCC to test smart-grid applications on CBRS airwaves, which Anterix officials believe is an excellent spectral complement to 900 MHz broadband spectrum.