WASHINGTON — An organization representing utilities across the United States submitted a proposal May 6 to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that would allow utility companies to use a portion of Ku-band radio spectrum now reserved for fixed satellite services.
The satellite industry, citing concerns about potential interference, is opposing the proposal.
The Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) proposal requests that electric, water and gas companies, collectively referred to as critical infrastructure industries, be allowed to use the 14 gigahertz to 14.5 gigahertz range of radio frequency spectrum on a secondary basis. Public comments on the proposal are due June 26.
The proposal also includes a provision to allow a non-utility commercial entity, Winchester Cator LLC, to use the allocated spectrum. The company would be allowed to sell any capacity in the spectrum that is not used by the critical infrastructure utilities, according to UTC Vice President and General Counsel Jill Lyon.
According to Lyon, bills moving through multiple state legislatures would require electric companies to move to a so-called smart grid. Other types of utilities eventually will move to more data-intensive systems as well, she said. She could not say whether any U.S. legislative body yet has passed this type of mandate.
Current grid infrastructure typically is based on 50-year-old technology and does not enable the most efficient distribution of electricity. The next generation of power grids will be capable of recording much more usage data. Low-power transmitters placed along the grid could beam that data to relay hubs no more than 10 kilometers away, which would then send the information elsewhere via existing fiber networks. Electric companies currently do not have a way to move this data from the grid to the hubs.
Assuming the FCC would not grant the utilities access to any portion of the spectrum as a primary user, Washington-based UTC is petitioning to use Ku-band on a secondary basis for grid-to-hub data transmissions, Lyon said. Secondary users of radio frequencies are required by law to avoid interfering with the operations of the primary users. The frequencies being targeted by the UTC now are used commercially on a primary basis for fixed satellite services uplinks.
Along with its proposal, the UTC submitted a study on the effects of sharing frequencies in the proposed range performed by RKF Engineering Solutions of Washington. The study found the frequencies could be used by the utilities without causing interference to fixed satellite services uplinks.
The commercial satellite industry remains unconvinced.
Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association here, said the UTC proposal represents a serious threat to the economic viability of many satellite services. Allowing this kind of use by the utilities companies would create significant technical difficulties, which the Satellite Industry Association will detail in its response to the FCC.
“This petition does not adequately protect existing and planned satellite services,” Cooper said. “The concerns are not just from fixed satellite services operators and [very small aperture terminal] networks, but from a host of new mobile services as well.”
Kalpak Gude, vice president for regulatory affairs with satellite operator Intelsat of Bermuda and Washington, called the proposal “a classic spectrum grab.” He said putting millions of transmitters on the ground, regardless of their power level, could create significant interference to satellite uplinks. Once this new infrastructure is put in place, it will be difficult to reverse course.
“You use a great story about critical infrastructure requirements to create a sympathetic client, and then you create an opportunity for reselling that capacity you just got without the normal fees associated with getting that spectrum.
“The fundamental point is, is there a need for this spectrum? There are plenty of terrestrial providers out there in the microwave spectrum. UTC has not shown why those services are not compatible.”
Lyon responded by saying no
terrestrial wireless companies currently provide the level of service that would be needed for the next-generation grid systems and the utilities are
best suited to do this on their own.
“Most companies’ commercial wireless services are not reliable and not ubiquitous,” Lyon said. “For these kinds of networks, you have to have this everywhere there is electrical power or water or gas.”
The FCC now has three options: it could consider the matter and issue a notice of proposed rulemaking, which would be followed by another round of comments from the industry before a final ruling is made; it could dismiss the proposal; or it could take no action.
Roger Rausch, a telecommunications analyst and president of the TelAstra Inc. consultancy, said it is difficult to predict which side will prevail if the FCC considers the proposal, but it would be possible to share the spectrum.
“[Fixed satellite services companies] always take an unreasonable position. They’re not willing to compromise and not willing to share. I expect a big battle on this.
“This band is already used for terrestrial microwave in some parts of the world, so it is possible to share if you’re willing to put forth the effort to coordinate. Would there be interference? Probably some. But it undoubtedly could be done without significant interference.”