As a global pandemic escalates demands on emergency communications capacity, a federal agency will allow unlicensed Wi-Fi providers to access a radio band previously reserved for utilities, public safety workers, law enforcement and other critical services. The move is expected to cause potentially dangerous interference, especially in rural areas.

The Federal Communications Commission voted on April 23 to open 1,200 megahertz of spectrum in the 6 gigahertz band (5.925–7.125 GHz) for the “next generation of Wi-Fi.”

NRECA had urged the commission to refrain from opening the band to unlicensed users and provided research showing how the order would interfere with emergency communications. NRECA is exploring options that include a potential court challenge.

“We are concerned that this order will impact the ability of electric co-ops, local agencies and organizations to keep the public safe,” said Brian O’Hara, NRECA senior director for telecom and broadband regulatory issues. “Spectrum interference can challenge co-ops’ ability to monitor their networks and ensure the safe and reliable delivery of electricity and other critical utility services.”

The FCC also rejected a system to oversee all unlicensed devices in the 6 GHz band and only required an automated frequency coordination (AFC) system to mitigate interference on full power outdoor devices.

“This decision adds to the threat against clear communications among these vital services when they are most needed,” O’Hara said.

NRECA was not alone in its concern about the FCC’s decision. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had urged the FCC to rethink its plan, the Department of Energy sent its concerns to the commission and the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee questioned the move.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in an urgent letter April 16, requested the FCC to delay final action until the country has recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic and the commission has further involved the DOE, FERC and other energy experts.

“Unlike the national crisis we are currently facing, the proposed FCC rule is neither timely nor necessary,” Murkowski wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Murkowski underscored the significant damage the order could cause for essential emergency communications.

“Allowing unlicensed devices to occupy the same band as mission-critical utility and emergency response communications could cause harmful interference that is detrimental to network reliability,” she wrote. “Secure communication is a mission-critical function for the energy industry and must be protected to ensure a reliable, resilient electric grid.”