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Telecom Energy Convergence

Telecom and energy utilities are increasingly linked as a more robust electric grid evolves.

Change is here.

The utility industry is becoming cleaner, more efficient, and more responsive to customers. Smart meters, distributed generation, and electric vehicles are fundamentally altering the relationships between energy providers and their customers. And each day, it seems, advances in new technologies like battery storage empower consumers more and more.

Indeed, change is here, and change is here to stay.

Or is it?

Utilities and their customers are investing in these technologies because we believe they will give consumers more control over their electricity and water consumption. Ideally, this will result in a more efficient and interactive connection between utilities and their customers. Additionally, the industry is building stronger, more resilient systems that can better withstand natural disasters while also protecting against cyber and physical attacks. New energy resources can enter the market, diversifying our nation’s generation resource mix.

These advances rely on an invisible network of radio spectrum to work. And if the U.S. is going to develop the “Utility of the Future,” the often-disparate energy/utility and telecommunications industries—and their regulators--must work together to make it happen.

This is where the Utilities Technology Council fits in. UTC is at the nexus between the energy and water industries and the telecommunications sector. We represent electric, gas, and water utilities of all shapes, sizes, and ownership structures. Our members are the engineers, the security experts, and the men and women who keep the lights on and the water flowing.

We are distinct from other associations because of our broad, all-encompassing membership and our mission. We are the industry’s central voice on telecommunications policy in Washington and abroad. Utilities  own and operate their own telecommunications networks to manage, update, modernize, and repair their infrastructure. These networks are both wireless and wireline (the latter being copper and fiber-based), and are essential to the day-to-day functioning of the electric grid, natural gas distribution, and water delivery. Electric utilities use their networks for the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition industrial control systems that manage the flow of electricity.

Utilities’ telecommunications networks are fundamental to delivering on the promises of the smart grid. This fact can sometimes get lost in the excitement over new devices that can connect and interact with smart meters and in-home appliances. Since most of these connections are made wirelessly, those networks must be as reliable and resilient as the electricity infrastructure it is meant to benefit.

These wireless devices, like all wireless devices such as our smart phones and laptop computers, rely on a vital yet finite resource: Radio spectrum. Radio spectrum is a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum used for nearly all wireless telecommunications services, including television, AM and FM radio, defense and military use, first responders, cellular phone use, and just about any other communications. There are numerous levels—called “bands”—of spectrum that prevent interference between users. These bands have different characteristics that suit their usage.

The Federal Communications Commission oversees the allocation of spectrum through auctions and other means. With the proliferation of smart phones, tablets, and other wifi-enabled devices, demand for spectrum is growing daily, and will only increase as our lifestyles become more reliant on digital services. The FCC has the unenviable task of determining how to use spectrum more efficiently, and unfortunately some of their decisions could negatively impact the reliability of the electric grid.

For instance, the FCC is considering expanded use of the 6-GHz spectrum band (known generally as the “midband”), despite nearly universal opposition from utilities and other industries who have already invested and built out systems in this band. Many utilities have used this band for their communications networks that run SCADA and other industrial control systems. If the FCC expands access into this band, the risk of interference with these essential utility networks grows, potentially resulting in reliability problems.

UTC, its member utilities, and several other critical industries have taken this message to the FCC, Congress, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Our hope is to break down the stovepipes between regulatory functions so actions made by one agency do not impact or contradict the actions taken by another. Indeed, because electricity, gas, and water utilities are the most critical of all industries, the federal government must ensure all of its policies recognize their needs.

We are also taking this message to the industries themselves. At our conferences and within our membership, UTC  brings together technology vendors and developers with utilities so these industries can learn more about each other and develop business relationships. These worlds are coming together at a rapid pace, and UTC is the one resource at the heart of it all.

An old commercial advertising mobile phones said, “A mobile phone is only as good as the network it’s on.” The same is true for the smart grid. For more information about UTC, find us online here.

Joy Ditto is president & CEO of the Utilities Technology Council.


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