Finding spectrum for utilities
Now, here's where things get a bit complicated. Utility companies like Duke do own some spectrum, but often not enough to build a full-blown LTE network. That's not really a surprise considering operators like AT&T and T-Mobile have paid billions of dollars for LTE spectrum in recent FCC auctions. The UTC has been urging the FCC for years now to carve out spectrum specifically for the nation's utility companies, but the FCC is mostly busy working on releasing more low-, mid- and high-band spectrum for commercial 5G services. Driving the FCC are arguments that commercial 5G is a national priority now given the Trump administration's ongoing trade war with China.
Into this spectrum gap are stepping several companies -- such as Access Spectrum, Select Spectrum and Anterix -- with spectrum holdings they want to sell or lease to utilities. In fact, Anterix was instrumental in forming the UBBA in part to groom potential customers for its 900MHz spectrum holdings.
Anterix, previously called pdvWireless, acquired some 900MHz spectrum licenses from Sprint in 2014 and used that spectrum to offer enterprise push-to-talk networks in seven major US cities under the TeamConnect and pdvConnect brands. But last year the company embarked on a corporate restructuring that involved selling its push-to-talk operations to two companies called Beep and Goosetown, and rebranding from pdvWireless to Anterix.
Morgan O’Brien also took over as the company's CEO. O’Brien is among the luminaries of the wireless industry, having co-founded Nextel (subsequently acquired by Sprint) and, later, Cyren Call Communications, which was involved in the market for wireless public-safety communications.
Now Anterix is urging the FCC to modify the 900MHz spectrum band to allow wireless broadband operations there, including LTE. Those modifications would raise the value of the company's spectrum holdings, making them capable of handling LTE traffic. And, in an indication of Anterix's ambitions, Christopher Guttman-McCabe has been representing Anterix at the FCC. Guttman-McCabe is currently the CEO of CGM Advisors but for more than a decade was a top executive at CTIA, the wireless industry's main trade association.
So far, Anterix appears to be making headway in its efforts. The company is already testing private wireless LTE networks in 900MHz with utilities Southern Linc and Ameren and with the Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as part of the agency's energy grid modernization initiative.
However, Anterix is facing serious opposition to its efforts to get the FCC to modify the 900MHz spectrum band. Utilities like the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), delivery companies like UPS and casino operators like Caesars Entertainment already operate slow-speed communications services in that spectrum, and they don't want the FCC to move things around in the band to allow broadband operations there. They're worried that any changes to the band will cause interference with their existing operations. For example, Caesars told the FCC it operates thousands of 900MHz radios in its Las Vegas casinos for employee communications, and that changes in the band would disrupt those communications. At the very least, Caesars wrote, "incumbents should not be responsible for relocation costs caused by a 900MHz band reconfiguration."
Indeed, Anterix is facing opposition to its plan from the nation's largest utility company, NextEra. "NextEra strongly opposes any rule changes," the utility wrote to the FCC, adding that "the massive broadband reconfiguration process is championed by pdvWireless [now Anterix], a startup company with essentially no customers, no track record, and an unproven technology."
NextEra added that its operations in Florida have already invested a total of $140 million in 900MHz operations there. And the utility said it currently uses the spectrum for, among other things, voice communications for nuclear power plant security operations.
What this all means is that US utility companies are already major players in the telecommunications market, either as customers of commercial operators or -- more commonly -- as operators of their own private networks, including both wired and wireless networks. Further, utility companies could well look to build private LTE networks -- and potentially private 5G networks in the future -- to address their growing bandwidth needs. As long as they can find suitable spectrum to do so.