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FCC Presses Wi-Fi Plan Despite Utility, First Responder Worries

Oct. 22, 2019, 10:00 AM

The Federal Communications Commission remains intent on repurposing airwaves to handle surging Wi-Fi data traffic, despite opposition from power companies and first responders who say it could interfere with their communications systems.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai defended the agency’s plan to allocate more spectrum to meet exploding Wi-Fi demand at a recent U.S. Senate appropriations panel hearing. The agency may finalize its proposal later this year or early in 2020, commission watchers say.

“I truly believe that American consumers can have the best of both worlds,” Pai told lawmakers. “They can have the electric utilities using the spectrum in a way that allows them to deliver power more efficiently, and they can have the benefit of unlicensed innovation.”

Tech giants, including Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., are pressuring the commission to allocate more spectrum for Wi-Fi. The number of public Wi-Fi hotspots is projected to grow globally more than fourfold to 549 million by 2022 from 124 million in 2017, according to Cisco Systems Inc.

The tech industry is also gearing up to deliver next-generation Wi-Fi 6, with its promise of exponentially faster gigabit speeds that can support internet-of-things innovations.

Electric, gas, and water utilities, along with police and fire departments, aren’t convinced that Wi-Fi signals can flow on the airwaves without disrupting communications systems they use to respond to emergencies and monitor power grids.

Wi-Fi Crunch

The agency has sought input since October 2018 on its plan for utilities and first responders to share spectrum in the 6 GHz band with millions of Wi-Fi-connected smartphones, internet routers, smart speakers, and other devices.

The plan is aimed at alleviating congestion on existing unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands that carry Wi-Fi, and spur new innovations in precision agriculture, telemedicine, and other areas, its backers say. Currently, 68% of mobile internet traffic is offloaded to Wi-Fi, a figure that is projected to grow to 76% by 2022, according to Cisco.

To protect essential communications from sgnal interference, the FCC has proposed what it’s calling an Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) system that would only allow unlicensed devices to operate on specific frequencies to avoid interference with existing transmissions on licensed airwaves.

Power companies continue to press concerns that the sharing plan may still interrupt vital communications systems, including the one used by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. earlier this month to shut down part of its electric grid in an effort to prevent wildfires in California.

“Our biggest concern with the AFC is right now it’s conceptual in nature,” Sharla Artz, vice president of government affairs at the Utilities Technology Council, which represents 399 utilities, including PG&E and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said. “One of the main points we’ve been raising at the FCC is at a minimum you’ve got to ensure that the AFC actually does work as intended and that it’s fully tested to help us mitigate that threat from interference.”

Cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Denver, that hold licenses on 6 GHz band spectrum to operate radio communications networks for police and fire departments have also raised interference concerns.

New York has told the FCC the proposal would force it to redesign its network at a “significant and unanticipated new cost to the City and its public safety agencies.” Members of Congress and Department of Energy and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission officials have raised similar concerns.

“There is real concern though, not only among electrical grid users, but also the first responders,” Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) said at the Oct. 17 Senate hearing.

Pai insists his agency will guard utilities and other current 6 GHz users.

“We recognize that the incumbent users in that band, in particular the electric utilities, need to be protected from harmful interference, and you’ve got my guarantee that I will work with our career staff to do the technical analysis necessary to ensure that that happens,” Pai said at the hearing.

A tech company coalition, which includes Apple, Microsoft Corp., and Cisco, is confident the proposed interference protections will work as planned.

“It’s certainly not in anyone’s interest to interfere with existing users’ spectrum,” Jeff Campbell, vice president of government affairs at Cisco, said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Reid in Washington at jreid@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com