The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted new rules for use of the 4940-to-4990-megahertz (MHz) band, providing 50 MHz of spectrum in the 4.9-GHz range for fixed and mobile services to be operated by nontraditional public safety entities.

Since 2003, this band was allocated for public safety applications. In issuing its order, the FCC noted that the band remained historically underused outside of major metro areas, with only 3,559 licenses issued to 2,090 individual licensees. This is only a tiny fraction of the more than 90,000 public safety entities that are eligible.

Public safety entities cited high equipment costs and limited availability as reasons the spectrum went largely unused. However, history tells us that this may be a “chicken-or-egg” situation. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are happy to make equipment if there is a market for it, and as manufacturing scales up, costs go down. The record shows large cities capitalized, while smaller ones couldn’t afford the costs of deploying the bands. What works in New York City may not make sense in Nebraska City.

As technology continues to evolve, the FCC’s action again shows it will continue to expand access to existing spectrum to meet market demands and work toward more efficient use of unencumbered spectrum. 2020 will be remembered as the year of spectrum changes by the industry (those who benefit and those who are impacted alike). With changes to 900 MHz, 3.5 GHz, 6 GHz and now 4.9 GHz, there has never been a better time to be an entity looking to deploy a wireless solution.

The FCC action also puts states in control of this spectrum, enabling them to work with local jurisdictions to choose solutions that work best for specific markets. This light-touch approach will allow each state the flexibility to negotiate mutually agreeable arrangements where it makes sense to do so — driving an increase in use and investment. This is a new role for states in the spectrum realm and one that will take time for adjustment.

Incumbent users will be grandfathered into this process while the FCC gives states the rights to lease some or all of the spectrum to third parties. Incumbents will have existing systems preserved, but the FCC seeks to work with states to define ways to implement dynamic spectrum sharing. This process potentially could be similar to the Spectrum Access System (SAS) for the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum and, most recently, the Automated Frequency Controller (AFC) for the 6 GHz band repurposing.

Traditional Utility Use Cases

There has never been more spectrum available for use by the private sector, including critical applications by utilities. By opening access to 4.9 GHz, a wide range of broadband applications could be supported. Potential immediate utility use cases include:

  • Private long-term evolution (PLTE) networks used as the communication platform to address growing communication needs. Utilities now are increasingly looking at a number of recently emerged spectrum options. There is no question PLTE is now a more attractive option for utilities. Utilities ultimately are focusing on a hybrid-spectrum approach that enables the financial model to demonstrate value and prudence to customers and regulators. This spectrum, when combined with the advantageous infrastructure economics of a foundational sub-1-GHz spectrum deployment, will be a complement to add capacity to a built-out secure PLTE network.
  • Options to mitigate interference risks in the 6-GHz band. With the recent 6-GHz ruling, allowing unlicensed Wi-Fi 6E devices to be operated in incumbent spectrum, utilities are now scrambling to protect their permanent fixed point-to-point/multi-point radio systems from interference. Some primary options include replacing systems with fiber or moving systems to the 11-GHz band. The 4.9-GHz spectrum option potentially serves as a great alternative to mitigating 6-GHz interference risk for backhaul and transport systems. There is equipment available today in this band for line-of-sight (LOS) giving the user up to 124 miles of range, near LOS (nLOS) with up to 25 miles, or non-LOS (NLOS) with up to 6 miles.

Emerging Utility Use Cases

Additionally, utilities could investigate emerging use cases such as:

  • Enabling rural broadband through either fixed wireless access service or serving as the transport network to backhaul data to central offices.
  • Temporary fixed communications for storm restoration.
  • Ad-hoc mobile networks for incident response.
  • Substation video surveillance systems for physical security, extending farther to encompass outer edges of the system.
  • Smart city applications that require LOS and NLOS applications such as streetlight controls, traffic controls, parking meter applications and other applications for dense urban markets.

Next Steps

Utilities looking for spectrum to license just entered a new time of opportunity. Now, with the 4.9-GHz band, they have more spectrum options that are well-suited to deploy their high-speed and/or broadband systems and meet their growing business needs. Utilities need to form relationships with respective state entities to understand how they can negotiate a spectrum lease to help customers and ultimately the communities they serve.

 

Utilities are confronting an assortment of new challenges as more spectrum is made available.

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Jeff Casey is the strategy and consulting manager for the Networks, Integration & Automation Group at Burns & McDonnell. He has spent his career in the power and energy sectors, helping clients deliver more than $12 billion in projects in the U.S. and U.K.