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Trade group eyes FERC, FCC collaboration to better address utility communications needs

Washington (Platts)--18 Apr 2018 451 pm EDT/2051 GMT


Hitting a roadblock at the Federal Communications Commission, a trade group serving critical infrastructure providers is calling on lawmakers and other agencies to aid its pursuit of telecommunications policy reforms it believes are necessary to ensure grid reliability and resilience.

Currently, there is a disconnect at the federal level between those overseeing energy policy and regulations and decision makers in charge of communications policy, Utilities Technology Council President and CEO Joy Ditto said in an interview.

As a result, utilities are finding it more difficult to deploy information and communications technology (ICT) systems essential to reliability, safety, resilience and security, UTC contends. These networks are used by the power and natural gas sectors for smart metering; energy, outage and distribution management; and real-time monitoring of distribution and transmission systems, to name a few of their functions.

"Our key message is that energy networks rely much more heavily on communications networks than maybe is clear," Ditto said. Her group aims to "connect the dots" between the energy and telecom sectors as "communications become more ubiquitous in the way we deliver energy."

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UTC, founded in 1948, has its roots in advocating for the allocation of radio spectrum for utilities, and now represents electric, gas and water utilities as well as natural gas pipelines, critical infrastructure companies and other industry stakeholders on issues pertaining to telecommunications and information technology.

US airwaves known as spectrum are the invisible infrastructure needed for wireless services. These airwaves are managed through federal government allocation. The FCC manages commercial spectrum licenses, while the Commerce Department oversees government spectrum.

UTILITIES' DILEMMA NOT RESONATING WITH FCC

Utilities need interference-free spectrum to reliably deploy their private ICT networks, but obtaining such airwaves from the FCC has proven difficult.

Engineers being unable to talk to each other during an outage situation or other critical issue due to interference is "a huge problem" that has not resonated with the FCC, Ditto said. "They really treat us like any other commercial entity, literally like Joe's Pizza Place down the street."

She added: "We feel like our options are to try to get the FCC to pay attention through other avenues," which of late has included focusing on the federal government's heightened focus on electricity reliability.

In a letter sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on energy and made a part of the record of that panel's Tuesday oversight hearing of the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, UTC asserted that new technologies and policy developments were "driving a convergence between the electric, natural gas, and telecommunications industries."

"If not addressed holistically, these interdependencies [between the energy and telecom sectors] could prevent new technologies like smart meters, smart grids, and infrastructure modernization from maximizing their fullest potential," the group said in the letter.

Thus, the letter asks lawmakers to encourage FERC to establish regular meetings with the FCC to build understanding between the agencies and the industries they regulate.

Meetings with a similar purpose already take place between FERC and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The commissions signed a memorandum of agreement in 2009 to promote coordination between the two agencies on issues pertaining to bulk power system reliability. They regularly meet to ensure there are no gaps in reliability due to nuclear power plants and related transmission facilities.

ACCESS TO SPECTRUM A RELIABILITY ISSUE

Such meetings between FERC and the FCC would be especially timely as the increased prevalence of smart phones, autonomous machines and other wireless devices puts more demand on the finite commodity of spectrum, UTC said.

It added that "access to adequate and interference-free spectrum is paramount to ensure that the networks underpinning the nation's transmission and distribution systems are resilient and reliable." Yet, the FCC's spectrum policies fail to "acknowledge the energy sector as the most critical of all critical industries," UTC said.

Ditto contended that basic education between FERC and the FCC would go a long way. "There are many decisions that the FCC makes that have a direct impact on the reliability and resilience of the bulk power system, and I'm not sure that FERC is aware of that," she said.

In addition to making the rounds at FERC and on Capitol Hill, with stops at the relevant energy and homeland security committees on the House and Senate side, Ditto said UTC is also raising awareness of the FCC's spectrum policies at the departments of Energy, Commerce and Homeland Security as well as with energy, telecom and cybersecurity advisers at the White House.

Increases in the frequency and intensity of storms hitting the US will only exacerbate utilities' challenges caused by the FCC's policies and bring the issue further to the forefront, Ditto said.

--Jasmin Melvin, jasmin.melvin@spglobal.com

--Edited by Matt Eversman, newsdesk@spglobal.com



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