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Private Networks

CBRS auction creates challenges, opportunities for utility companies

The federal government's commercialization of CBRS spectrum is creating private network opportunities for a number of industries, but for the utility industry the FCC's move to auction this midband spectrum is not entirely good news. That's because many utilities are already using this spectrum.

Utilities have been building their own communications networks for decades to enable emergency response and service restoration, especially in rural areas where commercial networks may not provide adequate coverage. As telecommunications moved to wireless technology, so did utility telecom networks, and many of these were built using WiMax equipment in the 3550-3650MHz (3.65 GHz) part of the CBRS band.

Now, utilities have until October 17 to make their network equipment for this spectrum compliant with the FCC's Part 96 rules for CBRS. (The FCC originally set this deadline for April 17, 2020, but the industry asked for more time and the agency agreed.)

"Many utilities will need to replace their WiMax equipment with entirely new Part 96 compliant equipment," the Utilities Technology Council (UTC) said in a statement. The group represents the nation's utility companies on policy and technology matters. "While the Part 96 rules for CBRS allow for incumbent licensees to use low cost proxy controller devices to interconnect with the Spectrum Access System (SAS), as a practical matter, much of the WiMax equipment that they currently use is not supported with proxy controllers in the commercial market."

But the commercial wireless network equipment market is very ready to support CBRS networks, with a growing list of vendors certified to sell equipment in the band. A large part of the demand for these offerings currently comes from utilities, energy companies and wireless Internet service providers that need to upgrade their networks by October.

In addition to the cost of new equipment, many energy and utility companies are budgeting for the cost of CBRS spectrum licenses. Right now, utilities are classified as incumbent licensees, so the Spectrum Access Systems that enable communications in the CBRS band protect these utility networks from interference. But after October, these companies will need Priority Access Licenses (PAL) in order to have protected access to this spectrum. At least 18 energy and utility companies have registered to bid in the upcoming auction for CBRS PAL, now set to begin July 23, 2020.

Table 1:

FRN Name AKA
0001756469 Alabama Power Company
0023929433 Avangrid Networks, Inc.
0028845873 Avista Development, Inc.
0004122651 Benton Rural Electric Asociation
0003194933 Chevron U.S.A. Inc.
0019274489 EOG Resources, Inc.
0006071674 Exelon Corporation
0001521111 Hawaiin Electric Company, Inc.
0012478665 NorthWestern Corporation Northwestern Electric
0027353192 Orange County REMC
0007495336 Oxy USA Inc.
0001661792 Pioneer Natural Resources USA, Inc.
0020177234 Pioneer Rural Electric Cooperative
0029289766 Ravalli County Electric Cooperative, Inc.
0001535657 San Diego Gas and Electric Company Sempra Energy
0001535608 Southern California Edison Company
0001824424 Tampa Electric Company
0003006103 Union Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Source: Federated Wireless.

The UTC lobbied the FCC for smaller geographic areas for the Priority Access Licenses, which would have meant lower prices for spectrum licenses, but did not win that battle. Now the group says it's unclear whether utilities will win PAL licenses or will have to access CBRS spectrum through an unlicensed model. There are likely to be takers of both models.

The UTC also said its members may partner with other entities to share CBRS spectrum. A precedent for this model exists already because some utilities share narrowband spectrum with public safety entities.

Utilities and energy companies are also interested in using 5G for their private networks. In a white paper written in March 2019, the UTC stated that its members will want to acquire spectrum in order to construct their own private 5G networks.

For now, many utilities are looking at technologies that are less advanced than 5G, and many are looking at spectrum other than CBRS. Ameren, a utility operating in Illinois and Missouri, is currently testing private LTE in 900MHz spectrum owned by Anterix and in 2.3GHz spectrum owned by AT&T. Duke Energy, one of the nation's largest investor-owned utilities, has told the FCC that it may build its own LTE network, and the company has said it wants to use sub-1GHz spectrum. "In order to be cost-effective, this potential LTE system must have access to broadband spectrum in the sub-one GHz range to minimize the number of LTE tower sites and eNodeBs to provide the required networking coverage, capacity, and reliability," the company wrote in comments submitted to the FCC last summer.

Clearly, the energy sector's demand for wireless network equipment is expected to grow, and more utilities are likely to start operating networks in the same spectrum commercial wireless carriers will be using. What's less clear is whether utilities could try to start competing with carriers to offer wireless service to customers. So far Southern Company's subsidiary Southern Linc is the only prominent example of this model. However, according to the UTC, utilities are more likely to use CBRS spectrum for private internal communications than for public-facing commercial services.

— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse.

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