FCC approves ‘small-but-mighty’ 900 MHz tranche for private LTE for US utilities
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has voted to approve usage of six megahertz of 900 MHz spectrum for private networking by utility companies in the US, declaring the ‘juice is worth the squeeze’ despite its diminutive spread.
The six-megahertz is split between two five-megahertz holdings at 897.5-900.5 MHz and 936.5-939.5 MHz, previously designated for narrowband communications, used primarily by transportation, utility, manufacturing, and petrochemical companies.
The decision makes these tranches of spectrum available for broadband licenses on a county-by-county basis. The remaining four megahertz in these twin holdings (along with segments either side, at 896-897.5 MHz, 935-936.5 MHz, 900.5-901 MHz, and 939.5-940 MHz) will be reserved for narrowband operations.
Commissioner Brendan Carr stated: “Some have said the Commission shouldn’t bother with 900 MHz, that the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. But consider the tech that licensees already are testing for the reconfigured band… It’s true that the band is small, but with these reforms, we can make it mighty.”
The move brings to an end a two-decade old filing, on behalf of 900 MHz license holder Anterix, to re-farm the frequency, which has gathered increasing support from the electric utility sector, including from the likes of Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric, Southern Company, and Ameren.
The FCC said in a statement the decision will enable “next generation, mission-critical applications” that cannot be served by narrowband systems, and drive digital transformation of the utilities sector, growing urgent as they seek finer load balancing with distributed energy supplies, and greater control, automation, and intelligence over their operations.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai commented: “Broadband access will enable industries to leverage technologies for applications like private LTE networks – next-generation networks that can enable Voice over LTE, grid resiliency and monitoring, wildfire mitigation, enhanced cybersecurity, and more. Utilities are eager to use broadband to modernise the electric grid.”
He highlighted Southern California Edison, a utility in a state hard-hit by fires in recent years, which has made the case for private mobile broadband to enable monitoring technologies to detect and extinguish fires caused by downed power lines.
Commissioner Carr talked about other users and uses of the band, including for thermal imaging of tracks by railroad companies to fix problems before derailments, giving power companies real-time control to switch off broken electricity lines before they hit the ground, and enabling residential solar power generators to trade excess energy.
Carr said: “Nowhere on the spectrum chart is it more difficult to unlock value than in low-band. Low-band’s distant propagation makes it inexpensive to deploy and so was a logical starting place for early generations of radio communications. As a result, the low-band is home to many old incumbencies– some that continue to prove their value to Americans, and others that are held back by the FCC’s dated licensing regimes and archaic use cases.”
“900 MHz provides service to vital industries including utilities and transportation. Yet its narrow bands and overly prescriptive licensing have prevented the band from keeping up with technology. This item brings the band into the modern era by creating a broadband channel contemplated for LTE. This could dramatically lower costs and increase throughput for industries that form the bedrock of our economy.
Anterix holds 900 MHz spectrum in the mainland US, as well as in Hawaii and Alaska, and also in Puerto Rico. Its goal is to license 900 MHz spectrum and supply 900 MHz solutions to the utility sector to drive grid modernisation, supporting the integration of renewable energy sources, and other innovations.
A spokesperson for Anterix said: “This proposal will kick-start that process, enabling private LTE networks to enhance grid, cybersecurity and, modernisation. Simply put, private LTE could be a boon for both utility networks and taxpayers alike, as hazard mitigation associated with private LTE could save taxpayers billions of dollars moving forward.”
The FCC vote also establishes rules to prevent broadband applicants from receiving windfalls and includes application requirements and operating and technical rules applicable to the new 900 MHz broadband licenses.
In addition, the item would modify the Association of American Railroads’ existing nationwide ribbon license in the 900 MHz band to facilitate the transition of the band without disruptions to railroads’ operations, and to enable significant railroad safety upgrades.