power lines
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A Federal Communications Commission proposal would expand Wi-Fi traffic to part of the spectrum used by utilities.

Utilities don’t want your smart home to interfere with the smart grid.

The power industry is lining up against a Federal Communications Commission proposal that would let tech companies sell devices that send and receive data using a part of the radio spectrum currently used to manage the electric grid.

The change, utility officials say, would increase the risk of interference at a time when data from smart meters and digital sensors play an increasingly integral role in grid operations.

At issue is a chunk of frequencies known as the 6 gigahertz band. Like lanes on a highway, wireless signals travel on different spectrum bands. Utilities, public safety agencies, commercial wireless carriers and other organizations are licensed by the FCC to use the 6 GHz band.

“Utilities see this band as mission-critical,” said Robert Thormeyer, spokesman for the Utilities Technology Council. “Any interference to those transmissions degrades the integrity of the data being sent.”

Not all frequency bands require individual licenses to access. Wi-Fi currently resides on an unlicensed band near the 6 GHz band. A group of large tech companies, including Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, want the FCC to expand the spectrum allowed for use by Wi-Fi internet connections to include the 6 GHz band.

Supporters of the proposed rule say that internet traffic on unlicensed spectrum is growing exponentially, and opening the 6 GHz band for Wi-Fi use will expand low-cost customer internet access while promoting development of more wireless technology.

Utilities and other licensed users of the 6 GHz spectrum band say if the FCC opens it up for unlicensed use, critical communications are more likely to be interrupted by people or businesses connecting to the internet through Wi-Fi. And since it’s unlicensed, they argue it will be more difficult to trace interruptions and fix them, potentially jeopardizing electric service and public safety.

“There has not been a lot [of spectrum] allocated for critical infrastructure like utilities,” said Stewart Kantor, president and CFO of Ondas Networks, a wireless network developer. The more the FCC opens up licensed spectrum for unlicensed use, “the more vulnerable they make those networks that are relying on it.”

Thormeyer acknowledged that the risk of interference is low. But he said interference can cause major problems for utilities, disrupting their ability to monitor vital equipment. For example, sensors on power lines communicate the status of the lines and shut them off when there’s a fault so minor problems don’t escalate. Interference could prevent that communication from getting through. “Utilities want to take out any risk at all,” he said.

Utilities started using the 6 GHz band during the 1990s after the FCC relocated them from another spectrum band to make room for other industries, Thormeyer said. This meant utilities had to invest in new equipment capable of reaching the 6 GHz band, he said.

He said the proposed change could force utilities to migrate again to another part of the spectrum. Some utilities have reported it could take them a decade to migrate and cost them $50 million to $100 million, but that depends on their size and location, Thormeyer said. “It’s a challenge that seems to be lost on the FCC at this moment.”

Tech companies pushing for the change said in comments that technology exists to prevent interference with licensed users, though Thormeyer said the system is unproven.

Spectrum has been an issue at the FCC for many years, he said. Going forward, he added, organizations like the Utilities Technology Council want to see more coordination between the FCC and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which regulates the utility industry at the national level. Meeting regularly could help the two agencies understand each other, Thormeyer said, especially as telecommunications becomes more important to the energy regulatory commission.

The FCC doesn’t have a set date to rule, but Thormeyer said it appears the commission will move forward with the proposal to open the 6 GHz band for unlicensed use, possibly later this year or early next year.

If the FCC moves forward, “I think they have to proceed cautiously,” Kantor, at Ondas, said. “The trade-offs are with the nation’s infrastructure.”

Correction: Stewart Kantor is president and CFO of Ondas Networks. A previous version of this story misidentified his title.

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.