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Controversy over 5G Spectrum will Affect Utilities – Not Just Airlines

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A dispute between the airlines and communications companies about potential interference between aircraft's radio altimeters and the 5G radio spectrum has just emerged. Although this has caused disruption and grounded airplanes, how can it affect utilities?

Unfortunately, this issue is not just confined to air travel. Part of the radio band has newly been allocated to communications providers, so this will impinge upon utility operations, particularly in the vicinity of airports. EnergyCentral did a special edition last year on how 5G and LTE systems would be important to upgrade communications for utilities to ensure better interaction with advanced technologies like DER and IoT. The implementation of 5G appears to have hit a rocky patch.

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Background

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auctioned off radio frequencies between 3.7 to 3.98 gigahertz for the use in 5G networks. Major telecoms organizations paid a total of $78 billion to get access to this new electronic “real estate”. The initial operations were planned for January 5, 2022.

This is a serious concern to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Radar or radio altimeters in airplanes use frequencies between 4.2 and 4.4 gigahertz to determine the level of a plane above the ground. While they try to filter out neighboring frequencies to some degree they can be overwhelmed with false signals if these come at high power or were scatter around their frequencies through reflections. So communications in the vicinity of planes landing and taking off could potentially cause serious accidents. Radio altimeters are an essential part of flying in bad weather, night, and landing via instruments. Telecoms providers were planning to switch on the new system in 45 major cities, creating coverage all over the country. This is now under scrutiny. Government agencies, airlines, and major telecomms providers such as AT&T and Verizon are disagreeing over whether these emissions are harmful. Many flights have been cancelled over the lack of clarity about safety in the past few days.

 

5G and Smart Utilities

Some of the applications of 5G include:

 

  • Allocation of energy within a smart-grid

  • Monitoring smart meters for the home or workplace

  • Remote communications with energy sites such as windfarms and solar arrays

  • Energy efficiency and analysing the effects of climate change

 

All this will become in jeopardy if the planned new spectrum is not available for use.

 

Next Steps

The telecoms companies have agreed to the FCC’s strict mitigation measures and will exclude the 5G C-band deployment around several designated zones around select airports, modeled after exclusion zones operating in France. These additional precautionary measures will be in effect until July 5. These will be fairly wide zones, so possibly some utility systems such as smart meters, and other data gathering technologies will not be able to function properly. Will utilities feel they have “a dog in this fight” and make representations, or even take legal action if their new business model is being adversely affected? We don't know as yet.

Verizon is planning a huge rollout of ultra-fast 5G broadband all across the USA. Clearly this is going to be afflicted in some way by the current controversy. However, Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon says, “This massive launch will put incredible speeds, reliability and security in the hands of our customers and amplifies our offering of reliable home and business broadband options to more places around the country, well ahead of the commitment we made last year. As 5G Ultra Wideband becomes available to more and more people and businesses, it will allow our customers to do more amazing things.”

If the challenges and difficulties are solved, then 5G networks will be essential to the digital transformation of utilities, so there is a lot riding on establishing that radio altimeters continue to work properly, while also ensuring that users on the ground receive the best high-speed access they need for their businesses to benefit from the new era of communications.

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