Navigant Research Blog

No Love for Utilities in FCC Spectrum Auctions

Richelle Elberg — November 26, 2014

As a wireless industry analyst who spent years following the FCC’s monetization of spectrum via competitive auctions, I’ve been struck by the dramatic increase in spectrum values implied by the ongoing Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) Auction in Washington, D.C.  The sale of more than 1,600 licenses nationwide, which began November 13, has now raised more than $38 billion – a tally that has risen by more than $2 billion since I started writing this blog!  That’s 2 to 3 times the total analysts were calling for prior to the sale and implies values of more than $2 per megahertz per population unit (MHz POP) for paired licenses; some large markets are already going for $5 per MHz POP.

(Value per MHz POP is a metric commonly used to compare the values of various spectrum licenses; it is equal to the price of the license divided by the total number of MHz for a given license divided by the population of the licensed market.  Paired licenses come with two swaths of spectrum, one each for uplink and downlink, and are typically more valuable than unpaired licenses, which have only one spectrum swath.  For detail on the licenses currently up for sale, click here.)

To put that in perspective, in the last major spectrum auction, held in 2008, spectrum values leveled off at $1.22 per MHz POP.  And while the bidding is blind – we don’t know which companies currently hold the top slot for which licenses – rest assured that Verizon and AT&T are near the top of that list.  Smartphone penetration and data usage have grown stunningly over the past 6 years, and the top wireless carriers are willing to pay (almost) any price to ensure they can continue to meet demand.  Without adequate spectrum, they simply won’t be able to keep up.

What about the Grid?

In my current role, as a smart grid communications analyst, I can’t help but wonder what happened to the FCC’s oft-discussed plans to allocate spectrum to electric utilities for smart grid connectivity.  Proceeds from the current auction will go to support build out of a nationwide public safety communications network at 700 MHz; public safety organizations were awarded those licenses, free of charge, a few years ago.  The so-called FirstNet initiative is expected to provide interoperable communications for first responders (police, fire, EMTs) – but apparently, the FCC doesn’t consider the electric grid to be critical to public safety.

The Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) has lobbied for years to convince the Commission that the power grid nationwide is critical infrastructure, and that utilities struggling to make upgrades to ensure improved reliability and efficiency are in need of dedicated spectrum to enable the communications between new grid devices.  But it appears the last time the FCC seriously considered such a move was in 2012.  At that time, the Commission was dismayed by the underuse of 4.9 GHz unlicensed spectrum and considered awarding the licenses to utilities.  But in the end, it didn’t.  In 2009, the UTC asked for 30 MHz of dedicated spectrum, also to no avail.

The DIY Option

Some utilities have owned their own spectrum licenses in the past – but that was the exception, not the rule.  San Diego Gas & Electric had plans to build its own communications network using wireless communications services (WCS) spectrum a few years back, but it opted instead to sell the licenses for the San Diego market to AT&T.  Many utilities across the United States have used unlicensed 900 MHz spectrum for their smart meter deployments, and many cooperative utilities own licenses for the 220 MHz band.  Smart grid networking system vendor Tantalus offers a system that leverages that spectrum for connectivity in difficult terrain.

But utilities have been left on the sidelines as the government works to maximize spectrum utilization, promote rural broadband access, and ensure public safety organizations have the communications they need in times of disaster.  But a resilient, reliable, efficient power grid plays a major role in our nation’s ability to respond to natural and man-made disasters.  That would seem to be worthy of dedicated spectrum.

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