Are Faster Internet Speeds More Important than Public Safety & Critical Infrastructure Services?
Last year, in its Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rule Making (ET Docket No. 18-295; GN Docket No. 17-183) the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered the release of what is known as the 6GHz radio frequency band to be used for standard and low power wireless devices for indoor and limited outdoor unlicensed wireless services. The fact that this band is 1,200 MHz wide is the most appealing reason for wireless providers to want to make use of this “natural” resource.
However, there is one critical problem; the band has always been exclusively used (until now) by Public Safety Organizations (i.e., Police, Fire, and EMS) and Critical Infrastructure providers (i.e., Electric/Water Utilities, Carriers, Railroad and Oil & Gas Companies) to establish communications channels between base stations and first responder vehicles, between electrical substations for control and protection of power lines, between water pumping stations and water tanks to control water flow, etc.
This is not the first time the FCC clears a band used by Public Safety or Critical Infrastructure organizations also known as “Private Users.” In the 1990’s, the 1.9 GHz band was auctioned off to the highest bidders who paid $7B dollars plus the cost to relocate private users into other frequency bands, including the 6 GHz band. Approximately 10 years later, the 2.1 GHz band was also auctioned off and private users were once again relocated. This time, since there is not much spectrum left to relocate private users, the FCC came up with the approach of sharing the 6.0 GHz band between licensed and unlicensed users.
As of today, strict frequency coordination protocols have to be followed when a new radio link needs to be established in the 6 GHz band. The objective of the coordination is to ensure the new radio link would not interfere with an existing one. The current frequency coordination protocol requires approved users of the band to comply with proven engineering criteria, mandated by the FCC, to assess the potential for interference between systems. The same engineering criteria is used to resolve interference problems resulting from faulty information used during coordination or when an antenna is moved off of the main path. This frequency coordination protocol has worked for many years and has proven to be the best way to protect investments in wireless technologies made in support of Public Safety and Critical Infrastructure users.
But even with this experience, the FCC allowed the release of the 6 GHz band without a good system in place to identify potential interference or correct problems when they occur. The FCC is relying on an automatic frequency coordination device that field personnel will use to detect interference. But this device has not yet been developed, and much less field tested. Many Public Safety and Critical Infrastructure organizations raised concerns about the plan and provided engineering proof that what the FCC has proposed and approved, lacked technical background to protect the current users of the frequency band.
If you think about it, Public Safety and Critical Infrastructure organizations in the United States have impressive response records. As a matter of fact, we expect them to be at our door within a few minutes in the event of an emergency or when we need the lights on, the water flowing, etc. With more users accessing the 6 GHz band, interference issues may deteriorate communications systems to a point where your telephone can not connect you with your 911 center or the emergency vehicle does not receive timely calls in life-or-death situations.
Interference is the reliability “silent killer” of wireless communications systems. Power from interfering signals can gradually increase to the point where radios do not operate as reliably as they were designed. There is no alarm or warning sign in the radio indicating that interference is present and as a result, operators will not know until the radio starts to act up or when communications are completely down.
Today, the same organizations opposing the sharing of the 6GHz are asking members of the US Congress to stop the deployment of unlicensed wireless devices until rigorous testing has been completed and has shown that both licensed and unlicensed users can co-exist. Without a clear method to track device installation and increases in interfering signals it will be impossible to safeguard the proper operation of these important communications systems, some of which have been built with taxpayer monies.
I understand that the FCC is being pressured by many Internet companies to find spectrum to connect users to the content they develop. But does it make sense to jeopardize the wellbeing of the people so that we have more tv channels, more movies to stream, or more videogames to play? Food for thought…