While telecom giants are boasting faster, unlimited wireless connectivity for their mobile phone users under the long-awaited fifth generation wireless network (5G), the energy industry is worried.
Energy groups are warning regulators that a 5G rollout without securing adequate bandwidth for the sector could cause major harm to the nation’s electric grid and critical infrastructure.
FTC Narrowly Focused
Spectrum, space on an already demanding wireless network, is limited, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which controls it, is uber focused on the interests and concerns of the telecom industry, not the energy sector.
Joy Ditto, president and CEO of Utilities Technology Council, is on the front lines in Washington urging the FCC, Congress, Energy Department officials, and members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to work with the FCC to ensure space on the 5G network for utility operations.
UTC represents the telecommunications and information technology interests of electric, gas and water utilities which collectively provide most of the electricity to the U.S. grid.
“We want them to pay attention to what the FCC is doing and how it impacts energy provisions. We want them weighing in on resilienc
e and spectrum issues. We would welcome direct oversight of what FCC is doing, and I’d love to see a hearing about how communications policy affects energy,” Ditto said.
FERC staff told Forbes it has had “a number staff-level discussions with FCC on areas of mutual interest such as disaster recovery and the interdependency of telecom and electric sector operations. FERC and FCC staff will continue to engage on these and other areas of mutual concern.”
Discussions have not occurred among chief regulators. Neither the Energy Department nor the FCC would comment on areas of cooperation or plans to coordinate 5G policy.
“I don’t think the FCC is doing well for the economy or the energy sector,” Ditto said. “They have the mandate [to advance 5G] and they are fulfilling their mandate. They aren’t really listening to us [in the energy sector].”
This month, at an event at the White House, President Trump said he wants the U.S. to be the leader in 5G infrastructure and technology development.
The 5G network has begun to roll out, but broad adoption of technologies on the network are expected by 2021.
In a speech, President Trump said, “The FCC is taking very bold action — probably bolder than they’ve ever taken before; it’s a new frontier — to make wireless spectrum available. By next year, the United States is on pace to have more 5G spectrum than any other country in the world.”
Trump chief economic advisor Larry Kudlow and his FCC Chairman Ajit Pai have said as much.
But the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council has urged regulators to reserve spectrum to preserve critical infrastructure, including the nation’s electric grid.
Therein lies the paradox.
The battle between the sectors—telecom and energy–was magnified earlier this year when the FCC sought public comment on its plan to set aside space on the high-frequency radio spectrum in the 6-gigahertz (GHz) range for future unlicensed Wi-Fi competition.
Utilities Technology Council filed comments with energy giants–American Petroleum Institute, American Public Power Association, American Water Works Association, Edison Electric Institute, and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
“It really shouldn’t be a fight, but unfortunately it is,” Ditto said.
Limiting spectrum for utilities will cost the American energy consumer and threaten reliability of our electric grid and energy operations, she added.
“We are critical infrastructure, and critical infrastructure has high, high, high reliability needs. The lights have to stay on as much as possible,” Ditto said.
The FCC has lower standards for reliability, she said.
“There’s a lower expectation for reliability with traditional communications technology,” Ditto said. “We’re all used to having dropped calls. We’re not used to have our electricity go out as often as we have dropped calls.”
“Electric utilities rely heavily on communications technologies to ensure electric reliability. They deploy radio communications when there is an outage situation or a need to restore power. But they also use it for day-to-day activities like monitoring their systems via SCADA, a digital communications technology that sits on a telecommunications network,” Ditto said.
Two recent reports–one released by UTC that was prepared by the Joint Radio Company, and another released by the Electric Power Research Institute–unearth possible problems with 5G technologies, including but not limited to, cyberthreats to the electric grid, lack of infrastructure to accommodate the network of small cells and sensors needed to expand 5G access, lack of private networks, and potential health concerns since 5G microwave bands are 10 times the frequency of previous mobile devices.
In its report, “Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and Its Potential Impacts on Electric Utilities,” UTC said “utilities are the prime targets for 5G applications as the energy sector has increasing requirements for monitoring and control driven by regulatory and commercial pressures given that the ways in which energy is generated and consumed are changing rapidly.”
But an increase in infrastructure to support 5G technology would increase the cost of doing business while the shortage of spectrum could thwart renewable energy integration and threaten resilience of an already old grid trying to go digital, according to UTC’s report.
“We are being squeezed in the electric sector in terms of provisioning our wireless access,” Ditto said. “Utility communication needs to be considered highly critical and policies around communications [should] fully take that criticality under consideration when policies are made so we can do our job and optimize [the grid].”
Optimizing the grid is central to developing a highly efficient utility of the future that can incorporate renewables, Ditto said.
5G Next Steps
The 5G network is expected to underpin the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the growth of artificial intelligence, expansion of robots for use across sectors from energy to healthcare. It is expected to allow machine-to-machine communications and virtual reality.
All of this requires more energy, which could exponentially increase energy consumption. 5G portends more devices, which increases power demand, which increases the need for more spectrum among utilities.
“We need to be able to be unleashed to do the best for our customers which are the American people without interference by a regulatory agency that doesn’t have the best interest of the energy providers in mind at the moment,” Ditto said.
In its 5G study released this month, “Fifth Generation Wireless: Utility Opportunities and Challenges in the 5G Transition,” the Electric Power Research Institute said, “commercially operated network offerings may not meet the needs of utilities.”
In the early stages of 5G, utilities could support “the digitization of many aspects of utility field work” which would lower costs and improve efficiency of operations, and it would increase worker safety. In time, 5G could support real-time operations and devices for integration of distributed energy resources.
The research institute said while the country is seeing some aspects of 5G in 2019, it is likely to be 2021 before it matures to support more advanced machine-to-machine devices and automated communications. The EPRI white paper identifies cybersecurity, spectrum shortage, spectrum sharing as current technical challenges.
EPRI Program Manager Tim Godfrey, said, “While 5G will definitely improve the capabilities of commercial cellular networks, there’s an interest and desire in the electric industry to be able to deploy a private wireless network with a pathway toward 5G. But the challenge is the large investment required for the equipment and the wireless spectrum.”