February 2013, Vol. 240 No. 2


Spectrum Crunch In The Energy Industry

Jack Richards, General Counsel, ENTELEC

It’s a mouthful (take a deep breath), but the mission of the Energy Telecommunications and Electrical Association (“ENTELEC”) is to advance knowledge and ideas concerning the engineering, design, construction, maintenance, administration, and operations of telecommunications, automation, electric power, information processing systems, and other electrical and electronic facilities employed in the energy industry.

As described in its new Web page at www.entelec.org, much of the association’s focus is on communications and control technologies used by petroleum companies, natural gas pipelines, and electric utilities, including vendors and users. ENTELEC provides an educational platform for the entire energy industry including technical presentations, equipment, exhibits, and networking opportunities during its annual conference and exposition. ENTELEC also advocates regulatory positions on behalf of the industry.

The ENTELEC Regulatory Committee
The ENTELEC Regulatory Committee is a special committee established by the board of directors in 2011 to address regulatory requirements affecting the association’s membership. Subcommittees targeting specific regulatory areas include Cybersecurity, Machine-to-Machine communications, and the 700 MHz D Block. Of particular concern to the Committee is the sufficiency of available radio spectrum resources to support the critical communications requirements of energy companies, including supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) related to production fields, pipelines, and other facilities in the oil and gas industry, as well as smart grid and other critical functions in the electric utility industry.

Energy companies rely on a variety of communications systems authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to meet their private internal communications requirements. These types of systems are used to serve vital communications functions including voice and data, mobile applications, communications with remote facilities, the extension of circuits to areas not served by commercial carriers, monitoring, security, emergency response, and a host of others.

Energy companies implementing advanced communications systems are increasingly dependent on automation to provide their services safely, reliably, and efficiently. Broadband radio spectrum is a key component in the development of these systems, enabling the energy industry to use wireless communications technologies that are potentially more cost-effective, scalable, reliable, and secure than commercially available services or other alternative communications technologies.

The energy industry’s ability to use state-of-the art wireless communications in developing, transmitting and distributing energy resources safely and efficiently depends in large part on a sufficient allocation of spectrum by the FCC. Without sufficient spectrum, there are no guarantees the industry will be positioned to get the job done.

Historic Loss Of Spectrum
For years, the FCC has taken sizable chunks of spectrum away from oil and gas companies, electric utilities and other critical infrastructure companies and allocated no substantial new spectrum to them in return. For example, years ago the FCC reallocated the 12.2-12.7 GHz band from Private Operational Fixed Microwave Services (“Private Microwave”) used by oil and gas companies, electric utilities, and others for long-haul point-to-point communications services, to Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), a consumer-based video programming service. DBS was provided spectrum to grow and develop as a new service offering while critical infrastructure companies were required to find frequencies elsewhere.

Later, in a series of separate decisions, the FCC reallocated the licensed portions of the 2 GHz band, once the mainstay of long-haul Private Microwave services, to Personal Communications Services (PCS), to Advanced Wireless Services (AWS), and to Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) — all consumer-based communications services. Most of this spectrum was then assigned by the FCC to licensees submitting the highest bids in spectrum auctions that generated tens of billions of dollars in revenues for the Treasury.

Many former 2 GHz Private Microwave users tried to relocate to the 4 GHz and 6 GHz bands, the next-best options for long-haul links, but satellite earth stations often blocked coordination efforts in those bands. Fixed service coordination at 4 GHz has become all but impossible nationwide, due to the proliferation of registered receive-only satellite dishes that must be protected. Uplink earth station congestion has made the lower 6 GHz band largely unavailable in and near major population centers.

Just as troubling, in 2001, the FCC auctioned much of the multiple address service (MAS) spectrum in the 928/952 and 932/941 MHz bands. This spectrum had been one of the few options available to Private Microwave users to satisfy point-to-multipoint requirements on exclusive frequencies. The band was heavily relied on for master-to-remote communications throughout the energy industry.

What is the result of these types of decisions by the FCC? More spectrum for popular consumer-based services – which is good – but less spectrum for critical infrastructure applications, which is not. Not surprisingly, energy companies are now sometimes left without the spectrum tools necessary to implement next-generation, IP-based services and increase efficiency, security, and safety.

Hope For The Future
In an age when the FCC auctions spectrum to the highest bidder and commercial cellular carriers are willing and able to spend tens of billions of dollars for it, the chances of a new exclusive allocation of spectrum designed to satisfy the unique requirements of the energy industry (e.g., ribbon configurations along pipelines, or small geographic areas around a refinery) are unlikely. Instead, the industry probably will need to focus on obtaining access to bits and pieces of spectrum where it can find them.

For instance, last year the FCC made available for use by the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico a new allocation of 2.5 GHz spectrum. This spectrum previously had been allocated solely for use by the Broadband Radio Service (BRS), a consumer-based service which had demonstrated no need for it in the GOM (an area, of course, populated with oil rigs but not consumers). Upon request by the American Petroleum Institute (API), the FCC reallocated this spectrum for the energy industry’s use.

A similar request by API remains pending at the FCC to make 2.5 GHz Educational Broadband Service (EBS) frequencies available in the GOM for oil spill response. EBS spectrum is available under the FCC’s rules only for schools and other educational institutions, but that approach hardly makes sense in an area where there are no schools except those comprised of fish. ENTELEC has supported API’s efforts to make more spectrum available for use by the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is of little use to consumers but much needed by the energy industry for exploration, production and spill response.

The FCC recently proposed to permit oil and gas companies, electric utilities, and others in the critical infrastructure industry to access the 4.9 GHz band on a primary licensed basis. Previously, only public safety entities could be licensed on a primary basis on those frequencies. ENTELEC supported the proposal and argued that access to the 4.9 GHz band will address at least some energy spectrum demands and spur more efficient use of the spectrum.

ENTELEC submitted comments in response to a recent inquiry by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) regarding the deployment of a broadband public safety network (FirstNet) on the 700 MHz D Block frequencies. FirstNet seeks to partner with multiple terrestrial carriers and at least one mobile satellite service operator.

ENTELEC pointed out that critical infrastructure companies also share an important function in protecting public safety and are well-positioned to assist in implementation of the new public safety broadband network. ENTELEC urged FirstNet to look to all critical infrastructure industry sectors, including the oil and natural gas industry and electric utilities, for potential infrastructure partnership opportunities. These types of companies likely are well-suited to work cooperatively with public safety to satisfy mutual communications requirements.

It Won’t Get Easier

Oil and natural gas exploration, production, refining, transportation, and distribution occurs around the clock and often in some of the most remote areas of the country. Communications systems in the oil and natural gas industry are developed to “five-nines” reliability (i.e., available 99.999% of the time) ensuring availability on the same 24/7/365 schedule. The harsh environments within which oil and natural gas companies operate, from hundreds of miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico to hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle in Prudhoe Bay, require the use of rugged devices and hardened infrastructure by committed professionals.

The oil and natural gas industry must be ensured that communications are available for day-to-day operations as well as during disaster relief and emergency response, despite extreme operating conditions and the failures of commercial networks.

Ideally, a new allocation of dedicated spectrum on a nationwide basis would be the best way to ensure that the energy industry can remain competitive and deploy the next generation of technology, including digital oil fields, advanced pipeline controls, and smart grids. But realistically, in light of the competing demands for limited spectrum, that scenario is unlikely. Absent an allocation of new, dedicated spectrum, the energy industry will need to work hard to cobble together sufficient spectrum from available sources.

The ENTELEC Regulatory Committee is doing what it can to help ensure that the spectrum requirements of the oil and gas industry and electric utilities receive the attention deserved by the regulatory agencies. If you or your company are interested in participating in these types of regulatory issues on behalf of the energy industry, ENTELEC would welcome your involvement and support.

Jack Richards
serves as General Counsel of ENTELEC and is a partner in the Washington, DC law firm of Keller and Heckman LLP (www.khlaw.com). Prior to joining the firm in 1986, he served for 10 years as an attorney at the FCC, where he held senior policy and management positions, including Chief of the Rules Brach, Land Mobile and Microwave Division of the Private Radio (now Wireless Telecommunications) Bureau, and Legal Advisor to Commissioner Mimi Weyforth Dawson.

Among other clients, he represents oil and gas companies, electric utilities, railroads, and their associations before the FCC. The views expressed are Richards’ alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Keller and Heckman or its clients. E-mail comments to richards@khlaw.com or call 202.434.4210.


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