August 29, 2023
In a new court filing, engineering giant Burns & McDonnell offered a glimpse into the company's plan to purchase billions of dollars' worth of spectrum in order to develop open, 5G networks for utilities, regional carriers and Internet providers.
Burns & McDonnell said it "plans to unlock consumer choice by making spectrum available to those in need, such as regional carriers and Internet providers (particularly in underserved and unserved areas), in addition to working with partners to modernize our aging [utility] infrastructure and enable private networks for utilities so they can offer enhanced services to their customers."
The Kansas City, Missouri-based company said it has already assembled an "American-led financing team" to pursue the funding it will need to purchase the lowband 800MHz spectrum that is at the core of its plan.
"Burns & McDonnell, those it has engaged with for financing, and potential utility and industry partners (the 'BMcD Group') is a potential and credible purchaser of the 800MHz spectrum licenses at issue, and has been planning to purchase the spectrum at auction," the company added.
Burns & McDonnell made its disclosures as part of a deepening battle between T-Mobile and Dish Network over the former's 800MHz spectrum licenses. Under a complex agreement inked in 2019 among Dish, T-Mobile and the US Department of Justice – a deal that paved the way for T-Mobile to acquire Sprint – T-Mobile is required to divest a nationwide 13.5MHz chunk of spectrum in the 800MHz band.
Under the terms of the 2019 agreement, Dish is first in line to purchase the spectrum for around $3.6 billion. However, the company has admitted it doesn't have the cash for the transaction and is now seeking more time to raise the funding. But T-Mobile doesn't want to wait and is asking for court approval to auction the spectrum to another company – potentially Burns & McDonnell.
The US District Court for the District of Columbia is expected to issue a ruling on the issue sometime later this year.
Focus on private wireless
Burns & McDonnell counts around 14,000 employees and has a presence in almost every US state. Over its century-long corporate history, the engineering firm has built infrastructure for customers in the aviation, manufacturing, oil, transportation, water and telecommunications industries, among others.
In recent years, Burns & McDonnell has developed a clear focus on private wireless LTE networks for customers in the utility sector. For example, it worked on a $50 million project with utility Ameren focusing on fiber and private wireless LTE networks across about 400 transmission sites.
More recently, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) named Burns & McDonnell as the company to implement the private wireless LTE network it wants to build across its 3.5GHz CBRS and 900MHz spectrum holdings, using equipment from Nokia.
SDG&E plans to use the network for a "Falling Conductor Protection (FCP) system," which relies on low-latency communications to detect a powerline that has failed and then de-energize it before it comes in contact with the ground. Such technology could potentially prevent the types of devastating wildfires that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, in 2018.
"Private LTE (PLTE), with its infrastructure and vast device ecosystem, can do more than provide a robust and secure communications network for utility operations. It can serve as a platform that enables utilities to layer new services to customers and communities," wrote Bruce Albright on the Burns & McDonnell website.
According to his LinkedIn page, Albright joined the company in 2019 after working more than a dozen years at SouthernLinc, a regional wireless network operator. SouthernLinc is unique in the wireless industry because its network was initially designed as a private wireless network for Southern Company's utility operations and technicians. Several utilities are now looking to develop the kind of commercial-grade wireless network that SouthernLinc has long operated.
Pursuing the opportunity
"If successful, the BMcD Group is committed to leveraging the nationwide spectrum for targeted community benefit, enabling critical infrastructure operators like electric utilities to deploy wireless broadband networks," Burns & McDonnell wrote in its new court filing. "Not only will this bolster the reliability, resiliency and security of our nation's critical infrastructure, but these infrastructure operators are in an excellent position to aid in closing the digital divide with 5G and Open Radio Access technologies because of their commitments to serving all their customers with essential goods and services."
In that effort, Burns & McDonnell is not the first. For example, AT&T and Nokia worked diligently for years to lease spectrum to utility operators around the country, before giving up and exiting the space.
More recently, startup Anterix has been leasing its own 900MHz spectrum holdings to utility companies. However, after notching several early wins with Ameren and Xcel Energy, Anterix's sales momentum has slowed.
Other companies that have discussed selling networking services and spectrum to utilities include Ligado Networks and Dish Network.
The nation's utility companies have been evaluating newer wireless technologies for years. Indeed, the Utilities Technology Council (UTC) commissioned a white paper in 2019 that outlined how utilities might play in a 5G world.
The next year, roughly a dozen US utilities won spectrum licenses in the FCC's 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum auction.
Mixing the right bands
But Burns & McDonnell has long argued that the CBRS band won't be enough for the nation's utilities. Instead, the company believes utility companies would need the superior propagation characteristics of spectrum below 1GHz in order to properly cover their vast geographic territories.
"CBRS spectrum, when combined with the advantageous infrastructure economics of a foundational sub-1GHz spectrum deployment, will be a complement to add capacity to a built-out secure private LTE network," wrote Jeff Casey on the Burns & McDonnell website in 2020.
That's exactly what's driving Burns & McDonnell's interest in T-Mobile's 800MHz spectrum, according to the financial analysts at New Street Research.
Burns & McDonnell "is likely to be a stalking horse for a fragmented group of electric utilities (a large traditional client base of Burns & McDonnell) who have spectrum needs," they wrote in a recent note to investors. A stalking horse is used to conceal a hunter chasing game.
Added the New Street analysts: "The utilities have been working with Anterix ... but apparently Anterix doesn't have nationwide spectrum."
Anterix, for its part, continues to argue that its 900MHz offerings are ideal for utilities. "We continue to stay close to this and other spectrum expansion opportunities, including talking to the relevant parties to evaluate anything that could be potentially accretive," the company told FierceWireless in response to New Street's comments.
However, it's unclear what business model Burns & McDonnell might pursue if the company does successfully purchase T-Mobile's 800MHz spectrum. The company could lease the spectrum, as Anterix, Dish and AT&T do. Or it could build a network and then sell slices from that network, as T-Mobile and Verizon are doing.
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