Utilities Want More Spectrum, Too

Wireless spectrum: It’s the air that mobile service providers breathe, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission as of late has been actively freeing up chunks of wireless spectrum for our insatiable appetite for wireless services. But turns out it’s not just the cell phone companies, ambitious new ventures (LightSquared!) or Google (s GOOG) that want more spectrum; utilities want more, too.

This week, the trade group the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) says it has filed a request with the FCC to seek shared use of spectrum that will likely be allocated for public safety use (so, say police and firemen in your area could use mission-critical wireless services over the spectrum to get their jobs done). The chunk of spectrum is out of the 700 MHz band, and the UTC says that utilities should be eligible to share the spectrum with public safety services because they provide “public safety services.”

Well, utilities don’t really provide safety services, but they do provide a public service, and most are highly regulated by their state public utility commissions. So, unlike a private company, there are a lot of barriers for them to just acquire wireless spectrum.

The FCC has been looking at the UTC’s proposal for a while, and last year, in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, the FCC said: “Congress should consider amending the Communications Act to enable utilities to use the proposed public safety 700 MHz wireless broadband network.” Further down in the document, the FCC writes, “utilities should be able to share the public safety mobile broadband network for mission-critical communications.”

Utilities want more spectrum because they are essentially being forced to get into the networking business through the growth of the smart grid. Whether they partner with a third-party network developer, like Silver Spring Networks, or build their own network, they will increasingly be adding digital intelligence to their distribution systems and to smart meters in homes. All of this requires more network bandwidth and perhaps more spectrum.

As American Electric Power (AEP), one of the largest generators of electricity in the U.S., told the FCC last year during a workshop on smart grid technology, “dedicated licensed spectrum is sorely needed by utilities,” and AEP supports the idea of having the government allocate wireless spectrum specifically for utilities to use for smart grid purposes. Some utilities fear that heavy use of unlicensed, undedicated wireless spectrum — which can be used by any company if they follow specific rules for using the spectrum — could lead to interference between their smart grid applications and other groups’ uses of the network.

These issues, including how the 700 MHz will be divvied up, and if utilities will be able to share it, will be hashed out over the coming months and years. It can typically take 5 to 10 years to define, allocate and build out networks over new spectrum, so don’t expect a simple answer any time soon.

For a little bit of history, the 700 MHz has been a “beachfront property” that broadcasters vacated in early 2009, when the transition to digital television was completed, and lots of folks have been jockeying over how to lock up these airwaves.

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Image courtesy of Todd Huffman.