New FCC Rule Opens Door for Private Utility Broadband Wireless Networks
by Bob Shively, Enerdynamics President and Lead Facilitator
"I see the FCC’s order as nothing short of a game changer for energy utilities." ~ Rachelle Chong, Current FCC Commissioner and Former California PUC Commissioner, quoted in Public Utilities Fortnightly
One of the most important evolutions for gas and electric utilities has been the development of robust communications networks tied into the software that operates the grids. Communications networks allow high levels of system monitoring, control of automated grid assets, remote meter reading, and interaction with consumer devices for the benefit of the grid. But utilities have been held back by the difficulties of obtaining adequate connections throughout their systems. Utilities commonly patch together communications networks that include utility-owned fiber, third-party leased fiber, third-party leased wireless networks, public cellular services, and even radio or microwave. Latency, lack of bandwidth, cost, and security concerns have limited how utilities use these capabilities.
A typical current utility communication system using various providers
But in a landmark order issued on May 13, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a ruling to make a key portion of 900 MHz band spectrum available for the sole use of infrastructure providers. The result is that utilities can create their own private wireless networks using the common LTE mobile standard. Utilities will have the opportunity to handle all communications on two private networks – fiber-based SCADA and their own private wireless broadband. Communications will be more secure, easier to manage, and more robust. According to Steve Mitnick, Editor in Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly, the order is “the coolest thing the FCC has done in decades.”
As utilities explore the new opportunities and add the new communications capabilities to their networks we can expect numerous benefits. These range from operational efficiencies, improved reliability and safety capabilities, the ability to further deploy advanced grid technologies, and new ways to interact with customer-owned devices. We can look forward to utilities using the new spectrum to move us more rapidly into the evolving energy transition with grids integrated with the “internet of everything.”
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