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As tropical storm Barry roared ashore in Louisiana last month, Entergy Corp. monitored the electric grid using airwaves that have long been reserved for utilities and first responders.
Those secure, wireless signals helped the company manage outages, even while winds of up to 65 miles per hour lashed the region. But as the world becomes increasingly wireless, U.S. regulators plan to open more of those airwaves to tech companies.
The move pits two of the most powerful U.S. industries against each other. Tech giants including Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. contend the airwaves, in the 6 gigahertz range, should be open for use by the next generation of lightning-fast wireless networks. Utilities say the new networks threaten to create interference that could make it harder to keep the lights on.
“Opening the 6 GHz band to unlicensed users could cause interference with our signals and could jeopardize the reliability of our communications network,” said Mike Twomey, a senior vice president for federal policy and government affairs for New Orleans-based Entergy.
As wires increasingly go the way of rotary phones, nearly every industry is trying to push into underused spectrum space. The number of Wi-Fi hotspots globally is forecast to grow sixfold by 2021 as fifth-generation, or 5G, cellular networks take shape to underpin everything from autonomous vehicles to industrial robots, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That means opening more space on the radio spectrum.
The airwaves in the 6 gigahertz range used by utilities, pipeline operators, police and fire departments and others happen to be ideally positioned on the spectrum to accommodate 5G networks. Tech and telecom companies say technology exists to open them up without interfering with emergency services.
“It’s no longer feasible for a band like this with so much potential for sharing to remain with existing incumbents and no additional usage,” said Alice Tornquist, vice president of spectrum strategy and technology policy at Qualcomm Inc., the chip giant.
Facebook declined to comment. Apple did not respond.
The debate comes as the FCC is under orders from Congress to open up more airwaves for broadband service. The move “could be a big boost to our nation’s 5G future,” the agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, said last year as it proposed the change.
Aside from concerns about interference, utilities say the FCC seems to be rushing its proposal through.
“Keeping the 6 GHz band is critical to the reliability of the electric grid,” said Joy Ditto, who heads the Washington-based Utilities Technology Council. “There’s no ready replacement.”
Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, said opening those airwaves “will allow a valuable spectrum resource to be more intensively used to benefit consumers.” The move, he said, would not cause interruptions for existing users.
A spokeswoman for Duke Energy Corp., however, said the FCC’s proposed approach would not shield utilities from harmful interference. “Any benefit from the expansion of the band would be outweighed by the threat of interference to electric utilities’ communications systems,” Duke’s Catherine Butler said.
The debate has spilled into Congress. In June, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, expressed concerns about the move in a letter to Pai. “The communication assets installed on the power grid are designed to ensure reliability,” she wrote. “It is important to recognize that electricity service in a region cannot be compromised in an effort to make 6GHz more broadly available.’’
The issue has spurred calls for more coordination between the FCC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees utilities. FERC Commissioner Bernard McNamee said it’s crucial that both agencies apply the same standards when it comes to communications used by utilities. “The consequences of confusion could be detrimental to the electric grid and ultimately the American people,” he said in an email.
Under a worst-case scenario, utilities may be forced to switch to laying expensive fiber wire to replace wireless communications, according to Entergy, which owns utilities serving Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. That could cost customers tens of millions of dollars, Twomey said.
“If the FCC plans to move forward on this, we want it tested and want to be part of the testing to make sure the interference can be mitigated,’’ said Brian O’Hara, senior director of regulatory issues at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.