What the FCC's National Broadband Plan Recommends for Smart Grid, Energy

For all you broadband junkies, it’s here: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) unveiled the first U.S. National Broadband Plan on Tuesday morning. And — what we’re particularly interested in — there’s an entire chapter on Energy and the Environment (Chapter 12, Page 245). The National Broadband Plan looks at how broadband can be used to build out a smarter power grid, make information technology more efficient and make transportation cleaner (the content is very much in line with the speakers and panels at our Green:Net conference in San Francisco on April 29).

Here’s some of the National Broadband Plan’s interesting recommendations on energy and the environment:

Recommendation: “States should reduce impediments and financial disincentives to using commercial service providers for Smart Grid communications.” Our take: Commercial networks can be more cost effective for utilities’ smart grid services, but they’re just not available in many areas. As Nick Sinai, the FCC’s new Energy and Environmental Director, said back in January, the FCC has been “exploring ways to encourage private networks built by utilities to operate in the same band, in order to drive down costs, and to drive open, non-proprietary standards,” as well as possibly looking to provide available federal spectrum bands.

Recommendation: “The Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) should start a proceeding to explore the reliability and resiliency of commercial broadband communications networks.” Our take: Utilities say that commercial networks aren’t reliable enough, don’t have enough coverage and cost too much, as Grid Net CSO Andres Carvallo told us last week. And another reason that many forget, the FCC cites in the report:

“[M]any large utilities have economic disincentives to use commercial networks and may be making suboptimal choices. As rate-of-return regulated utilities, they typically earn guaranteed profits on the assets they deploy—including private communications networks—but only receive cost recovery if they use commercial networks.”

Recommendation: “The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC should continue their joint efforts to identify new uses for federal spectrum and should consider the requirements of the Smart Grid.” Our take: That’s light on details, but clearly they’re giving a nod to considering federal spectrum for utilities smart grid. As we’ve pointed out, power providers like AEP and utility trade groups have long been asking for dedicated wireless spectrum. The argument behind these calls is that as utilities roll out more smart grid services, utilities will need more network bandwidth. AEP presented to the FCC group late last year and said, “Dedicated spectrum is much less likely to receive interference and has a remedy procedure if interference is experienced.”

Recommendation: “Congress should consider amending the Communications Act to enable utilities to use the proposed public safety 700 MHz wireless broadband network.” Further down in the document the FCC writes, “utilities should be able to share the public safety mobile broadband network for mission-critical communications.” Our take: This is great, all options should be looked at in terms of spectrum for utilities. Spectrum management is one thing that the FCC can use its weight to deliver for the smart grid.

Recommendation: “States should require electric utilities to provide consumers access to, and control of, their own digital energy information, including real-time information from smart meters and historical consumption, price and bill data over the Internet. If states fail to develop reasonable policies over the next 18 months, Congress should consider national legislation to cover consumer privacy and the accessibility of energy data.” Our take: Nice, if the carrot doesn’t work use the stick. Hopefully that means that one day utilities all over the U.S. will be following in the footsteps of states like California, whose public utility commission has called for consumers to have access to smart grid data by the end of 2010 and real-time smart grid data by the end of 2011.

Recommendation: “The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should adopt consumer digital data accessibility and control standards as a model for states.” Our take: Basically FERC should lead the way on accessing data. However, putting FERC in charge of parts of the grid can actually be a bit controversial, see here.

Recommendation: “DOE should consider consumer data accessibility policies when evaluating Smart Grid grant applications, report on the states’ progress toward enacting consumer data accessibility and develop best practices guidance for states.” Our take: Good idea, but a little late given the $4 billion in grants for smart grid companies have already been awarded and is slowly getting doled out. I guess if there’s a next round of smart grid grants, this would work.

Recommendation: “The Rural Utilities Services (RUS) should make Smart Grid loans to rural electric cooperatives a priority, including integrated Smart Grid-broadband projects. RUS should favor Smart Grid projects from states and utilities with strong consumer data accessibility policies.” Our take: Like telecom and broadband projects, the FCC is looking to aid access for the rural communities, which tend to get the shaft in infrastructure roll-outs (expensive).

Recommendation: “The FCC should start a proceeding to improve the energy efficiency and environmental impact of the communications industry.” And, “The federal government should take a leadership role in improving the energy efficiency of its data centers.” Our take: While we appreciate the attention to sustainable IT, the FCC doesn’t seem like it knows what to say on the subject. Light on details — I want more.