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Utilities, Public Safety, and Telecom Concerns Fight IoT Startup Higher Ground

Richelle Elberg — December 7, 2016

Cyber Security MonitoringElectric utilities and their advocate organization the Utilities Technology Council (UTC) have joined communications and public safety concerns in opposing satellite messaging startup Higher Ground LLC. The California-based company first filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015 for permission to use 6 GHz spectrum bands for a satellite-based application that would allow smartphones to send and receive messages and email in areas not covered by cellular service providers. The service would use a smartphone case (called a SatPaq) outfitted with an antenna to enable communications with the IntelSat satellite system.

Higher Ground also envisions Internet of Things (IoT) applications for its network, including communicating soil conditions, detecting agricultural pests, and monitoring livestock far from cellular networks. In its filing, the company says, “Someday we hope to have one million SatPaqs in use.”

The company’s application suggests that interference events would be extremely rare and that its case would shut down if interference is detected. The SatPaqs are designed to operate on C-band frequencies in the 3,700 MHz-4,200 MHz (space-to-Earth) and 5,925 MHz-6,425 MHz (Earth-to-space) bands.

Not So Fast

Utilities, along with public safety and telecom organizations, use the 6 GHz band for point-to-point (PtP) microwave connections. For utilities, these connections serve substation SCADA and tele-protection functions that are critical to grid stability and reliability.

Utilities have already had to relocate their microwave networks once before due to FCC spectrum licensing machinations. As Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) noted in its filing submitted in September, “NPPD had utilized the 1.9 GHz and 2.1 GHz fixed microwave bands in the past, which the FCC reallocated for Broadband PCS, Mobile Satellite Services, and Advanced Wireless Services. NPPD was displaced from these bands to make room for companies that provide consumer services similar to what Higher Ground LLC seeks to provide.”

“NPPD invested in the 6 GHz band, as have many others, to replace the 1.9 GHz and 2.1 GHz fixed bands we were removed from to meet our needs for long-haul microwave communications to carry our critical infrastructure communications network.” The company also noted that it has made a substantial investment in these networks and engineered them to a “99.999% minimum reliability.”

Bucking the System

Communications providers and public safety organizations have vehemently opposed the Higher Ground plan. In addition to a waiver (for mobile versus fixed use in the band), Higher Ground is proposing to use its own spectrum management database rather than participating with current licensees to coordinate spectrum use ahead of time. Because Higher Ground end users would be mobile, the traditional system would not be effective.

Rather, it proposes to “deploy a database-driven, permission-based network solution that will prevent harmful interference to terrestrial PtP systems in the 5,925 MHz-6,425 MHz band. The SatPaq network matches a SatPaq’s geocoordinates with a look-up table that incorporates the FCC’s Universal Licensing System database information for all C-band PtP licensees and identifies Protection Zones for the PtP receivers. Whenever the SatPaq network computes that there is any possibility of harmful interference to a PtP receiver, the SatPaq will be assigned to transmit on other frequencies that are available for operations or directed to transmit to a satellite in a different direction.”

Higher Ground?

The FCC has been all about spectrum sharing in recent years as it works to accommodate growing demands upon limited airwave resources. This mindset is at odds with utilities, which need 100% availability for their critical communications. In fact, some utilities are investing in their own dedicated spectrum as a hedge against future FCC licensing rule changes. Others are finding that the total cost of ownership for dedicated spectrum networks is competitive with unlicensed band solutions. Based on the high profile opposition that has emerged and the critical infrastructure at risk, it’s my opinion that Higher Ground LLC’s SatPaq network has relatively low odds of success.

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