Blog: Smart networks will need smarter negotiations

The spectrum debate needs flexibility from all if Australia is to benefit appropriately

If Australia is to benefit from smart electricity grids, both sides of the spectrum debate need to give a little to get a lot.

ACMA recently put out a call to the electricity industry for a unified, nationwide approach to spectrum for use in smart electricity grids. However the rollout of such grids face a number of challenges.

For one, spectrum in the bands most sought after by utilities for high reliability ‘machine to machine’ networking with voice capability -- at or below 2.5 GHz -- are scarce and highly valued.

For another, that spectrum is already being used by wireless service providers such as Unwired, whose CEO David Spence recently told Computerworld that along with machine-to-machine communication being the next wireless boom, it owned the 2.3Ghz to 2.4Ghz spectrum.

ACMA for its part says that it has presented a range of options to the utilities, including participation in future spectrum allocations, the purchase of existing spectrum licences and sharing with other industries with similar network requirements.

For the electricity suppliers this will likely mean either a long wait or high expense through having to purchase spectrum (if there’s any to be sold) or having to pay existing spectrum owners a fee for renting space on their spectrum or for supplying data carriage.

Energy Networks Australia (ENA), an industry group representing electricity suppliers on the issue, has issued its own position paper on the issue.

In the paper ENA states that a number of its members have encountered difficulties in acquiring access to appropriate spectrum for the wireless components of its smart network on a commercial basis.

It argues that given impending requirements to roll out electricity smart networks, and the difficulties encountered in obtaining commercial access to appropriate spectrum, 10-15MHz of spectrum presently under 15-year spectrum licenses should be identified and reallocated for use in the rollout and operation of electricity smart networks.

ENA also says that given the social and public policy benefits enabled by electricity smart networks that spectrum access charges should be judged by “considerations other than purely commercial ones”.

I’d be hard pressed to think of any telcos who have been granted access to spectrum based on anything other than having a bigger wad of cash than the other telcos, but if you know of any, email me below.

ENA also hints at a try-before you buy approach to spectrum use, arguing that “any spectrum identified for smart network use should be allocated to users for a sufficient period to ensure that smart networks builds can be justified”.

Again, this would seem to be a pretty unusual move.

The solution it seems, from ENA’s point of view anyway, is to have the government do the hard yards.

“In order to address these issues, the Federal Government should appoint a joint working group, comprising energy industry and National Broadband Network representatives, to ensure the proposed investments in energy and communications infrastructure achieve the greatest possible synergies and therefore least cost outcomes,” the paper reads.

“The Federal Government should also consider making a dedicated portion of telecommunications spectrum available nationwide for the purposes of implementing smart networks. The regulation of this spectrum should be aligned to the requirements of smart network infrastructure.”

So, ACMA can call on the electricity sector to get its act together, but the challenges and ball seem to be back on the government’s court for now.

It’s likely both sides will have to give a little on the spectrum issue if the nation is to benefit from the enhanced monitoring and automation of electricity infrastructure that will be required in the not too distant future.

Got a smart solution to spectrum or an opinion on smart networks?Email Computerworld or follow @computerworldau on Twitter.

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Tags Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)ENASmart electricity grids

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