The news source for Internet policy
Broadband vs. LMR

Utilities, Public Safety Agencies Face Complicated Spectrum Landscape, IWCE Told

The FCC’s May order reallocating a 6 GHz swath of spectrum in 900 MHz for broadband could be a game changer for utilities (see 2005130057), speakers said Wednesday at IWCE. Most are still watching, they said. On another panel, experts said despite the growth of FirstNet many public safety agencies remain committed to land-mobile radio (LMR).

Xcel Energy supports more than 20 wireless networks inside its business and was looking to simplify its operations, said Allen Tharp, senior manager-business systems network and planning. A lot of utilities worked with Anterix to move the order forward, he said. “Now we have broadband available,” he said: “We have to look at where we are and where we want to be and how do we get there.” Xcel plans to test the use of the band for grid modernization, backhaul and LMR, Tharp said.

Companies look at what the wireless industry did in LTE and want to do the same things on their own private networks, said Scott Burk, industrial IoT solution specialist at equipment vendor Encore Networks. Even when adopting new technology, they “still have old stuff to connect to,” he said. Thirty-year-old radio systems are being used, Burk said. The radios worked then and “work great” today, he said. “There’s not a cellphone -- a consumer mentality here -- we’re looking at stuff that gets put in the field for 10-plus years,” he said.

Other bands also are available for private networks and all offer advantages, said Mark Poulin, Anterix vice president-technology and engineering. The 700 MHz band is “a robust solution if you’re just going to do narrowband LTE,” he said. For high throughput and capacity in targeted geographic areas, the citizens broadband radio service band is “a great solution,” he said. “For large geographic area coverage … supporting broadband LTE then 900 MHz is your best solution,” he said.

Poulin sees growing interest in the 900 MHz band. Electric utility Ameren already completed a pilot project and agreed to lease Anterix spectrum, he said: “They’re the primary mover on 900 MHz spectrum.” Southern Co. is already operating a private LTE system in the 800 MHz band and “are huge advocates of having a private system,” he said. Southern is also scoping the 900 MHz band, he said. The National Renewable Energy Lab is looking at how to use the spectrum to increase the reliability of distributed generation, he said. Exelon also has a trial, as do other utilities that haven’t been advertised. “We have excellent momentum early in the game here,” he said.

Most agencies have access to land-mobile radio, which they have used since the 1930s, and many also use FirstNet or another broadband network, said consultant Andrew Seybold on a second panel. “Having both LMR and broadband networks provides a better communications strategy,” he said. “There’s a lot of work going on between LMR and LTE and the integration of the two.”

Public safety needs push-to-talk (PTT) on both LMR and FirstNet or another broadband network, Seybold said. “Push to talk on LMR is common to a specific technology,” while PTT on broadband “has more differences than commonalities,” he said. FirstNet has seven approved PTT technologies that aren’t always interoperable, he said.

Budgets are tight for public safety agencies and getting tighter with the COVID-19 pandemic, Seybold said. LMR networks are expensive to build, but using FirstNet or another network means continuing operating expenses, he said. “Both LMR and broadband are going to be around for a long time,” he said: “Agencies need both networks and need to find a way to balance costs associated with both.’

These are complex times right now” with tax receipts down because of the pandemic and budget cuts likely to follow, said Mike Barney, FirstNet advanced solutions team regional director. “The service calls are still going to be there, and they’re expected to rise,” he said. “More agencies are holding back on large capital expenditures to reduce funding pressure or to see if FirstNet is an option,” he said. Investments in LMR are also down, he said.

Public safety is headed toward the “perfect storm,” with budget challenges and an increasing number of calls for service, Barney said. Public safety agencies are under pressure“to do more with less funding and with an aging communications system that may need to be replaced in a few years,” he said.

LMR remains “essential, ” said Heath Beach, principal at Kaleo Partners, former deputy chief information officer for the state of Florida. “I don’t see the state moving entirely away from it, no matter what the budget crisis is.” During Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida, the only thing that worked throughout was the state’s LMR system, he said. “All the carriers had the problem,” he said. Local government systems went down, he said.