EWA, pdvWireless pitch new game plan for 900 MHz spectrum

The Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA) and pdvWireless (PDV) are asking the FCC to consider rule changes in the 900 MHz band that would make it more productive for today’s utilities and Industrial IoT (IIoT).

The EWA/PDV proposal notes that the rules governing the 900 MHz band have not been updated in any meaningful technical or operational sense for more than 30 years, and they’re attaching a sense of urgency to the proposed changes, citing how the country needs to protect its critical infrastructure, which includes electric utilities, water, oil & gas refineries, railroads and other structures, from cybersecurity and security threats. Broadband is essential to providing security for the national gird and other critical infrastructure, they say.

At issue is a small but great piece of spectrum that in the rest of the world is a routine part of commercial cellular wireless networks, according to pdvWireless CEO Morgan O’Brien. In the U.S., it’s been treated differently, and O’Brien himself knows it rather well, having been one of the folks instrumental in building Nextel Communications’ SMR network.

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Back in the 1980s, the U.S. split the 900 MHz band, giving 200 channels to commercial users like SMR and 199 to the likes of business, industrial and private radio users. The initial assignments were made by lottery for the commercial players. One of the first things O’Brien did back then was to approach the individual lottery winners and make deals with them. He was successful, and Nextel became a popular Push-to-Talk (PTT) service.

In 2005, Sprint completed its $35 billion acquisition of Nextel, but it wasn’t able to use the channels to support LTE and ended up selling the spectrum, which is how it ended up with pdvWireless. O’Brien and his team approached the FCC about making changes to the 900 MHz band in 2014, and the filing this week is an attempt to respond to the major arguments that were made against that plan and present a new way forward, O’Brien told FierceWireless.

The 900 MHz band basically has the same propagation characteristics as the 700 and 800 MHz bands, so it’s good for coverage. Two principal eNodeB vendors, Nokia and Ericsson, already build equipment for the 900 MHz band for other regions of the world.  

“We’re saying this is the golden opportunity to do it,” O'Brien said, because the incumbent (pdvWireless) wants to do it and it’s happy to take on the burden of adapting the technology to make it happen.

Probably the biggest and most pressing opportunity he sees for a reconfigured band is industrial machine-to-machine uses, including sensors that depend on low latency and are able to convey a lot of information in a short time.

“Where this spectrum ought to end up is right at the heart of next-generation electrical grids for the purpose of providing more reliability, resiliency and security,” he said. “That’s the business case we see,” which is why they want to get the regulatory process rolling.

And what are O'Brien's thoughts about the proposed combination of Sprint and T-Mobile? He said it’s probably a good thing for the marketplace to have a strong third player—and it's good for a small venture like pdvWireless that can be used as an example of the kinds of competitive forces that are in the market.