Private networks to get a boost from FCC ruling on 900 MHz band

Some U.S. utilities have been longtime advocates of making more spectrum available for private wireless broadband, and a recent FCC decision should help the industry move forward. This spring the agency approved some orders to realign the band, making six megahertz available for broadband, while reserving four megahertz for two-way voice communications and similar narrowband applications that constitute the primary uses of the band today. 

"The order paves the way for the existing interleaved land mobile radio (LMR) channels to be reconfigured in 3x3 MHz blocks, such that utilities can begin building out their own private long-term evolution (LTE) communications networks," said engineering firm Burns McDonnell in a blog post. The firm is a founding member of the Utility Broadband Alliance

900 MHz band

"Broadband systems in the 900 MHz band will allow utilities to develop LTE networks to perform real-time monitoring and active control of their energy distribution systems," wrote FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks in his comments on the orders. "Smart Grid systems will smooth out spikes in usage before they happen, respond instantaneously to outages, and route power to customers in the most efficient manner, reducing consumption and emissions. In addition, the private nature of these networks will provide an added level of security against the increasing threat of attacks on our critical infrastructure."

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In addition to utilities, oil refiners and railroads also use the 900 MHz spectrum bands. The attorneys at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld wrote that the orders could be challenging for refineries. "There are currently no spark-resistant broadband devices available, which are necessary to refinery operations," according to Akin Gump. "Moreover, broadband performance is limited in challenging radio frequency environments with high noise and significant obstructions, which are typical in many industrial facilities. Finally, some incumbent users, such as oil refiners in the United States, are concerned about the potential for broadband operations to interfere with their critical narrowband communications, which are essential to maintaining safety in and around their facilities."

The FCC said it is modifying the Association of American Railroads’ existing nationwide ribbon license in the 900 MHz band. The change is expected to result in a net gain of spectrum for the railroad industry.

Incumbent users of the bands approved for broadband can sell their spectrum and voluntarily relocate. To date, the biggest buyer of this midband spectrum has been Anterix, formerly pdvWireless, a company created by Morgan O'Brien and the other founders of Nextel. This company has been pushing the FCC for years to realign the 900 MHz band.

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Anterix says it owns approximately 60% of all the licensed spectrum in the 900 MHz band, and has nationwide coverage throughout the contiguous United States, Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. The company is already starting to license its spectrum in the 900 MHz band to utilities that want to deploy private wireless networks. This spring Ameren signed a letter of intent to sign a long-term spectrum lease with Anterix, with the goal of deploying a private LTE network. 

"To enable the grid of the future, the system requires a smarter, stronger and more secure communications network with far greater bandwidth," said Bhavani Amirthalingam, senior vice president and chief digital information officer for Ameren, in a press release. "Ameren envisions a future where broadband plays a key role in the control and management of our network, providing enhanced communication with co-workers, resulting in a better experience for our customers. Ameren intends to use a private LTE network for a wide range of applications slated to expand over time."