TR Daily FCC-FERC Meetings on Utility Communications Urged at Hearing
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Thursday, October 11, 2018

FCC-FERC Meetings on Utility Communications Urged at Hearing

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee should urge the FCC and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to hold regular meetings on cross-jurisdictional issues related to communications for utility networks, the president and chief executive officer of the Utilities Technology Council told lawmakers today.

“[T]he FCC has pending proceedings that threaten to compromise the safety, reliability and security of utility networks. One proceeding would expand access to the 6 [gigahertz] spectrum band to unlicensed users. Many utilities use the 6 GHz band for mission-critical communications, including day-to-day reliability monitoring and emergency response. Our fear is that letting new commercial users into the band will cause interference to utility mission-critical networks,” UTC President and CEO Joy Ditto said in her written testimony at today’s Senate Energy Committee hearing on “blackstart,” or the process of returning electric grids to operations after a wide-scale blackout.

“Because spectrum policy is managed by the FCC, and because the deployment of ICT networks is interwoven into the deployment of electric service, we believe it is time to hold cross-agency and cross-jurisdictional discussions between the FCC and FERC about the growing interdependencies between the energy and telecommunications industries. Such meetings would build understanding between the two regulatory bodies and the industries they regulate. On behalf of our members, we urge the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to encourage the FCC and FERC to hold regular meetings. We have also made this request to Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and commissioners and staff of both FERC and the FCC,” Ms. Ditto added.

Along with communications concerns, cybersecurity issues also figured prominently in the hearing.

Witness Thomas Galloway Sr., president and CEO of the North American Transmission Forum, said in his written testimony, “Based on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, the industry developed a new governance structure termed a ‘National Response Event’ to help prioritize and assign larger sets of mutual aid resources from even-more-distant locations. A recent area of focus involves developing an equivalent mutual aid capability for specialized skill sets, such as cyber security personnel or protection system technicians that could prospectively be shared in the wake of a relevant event.”

Timothy Yardley, senior associate director–technology and workforce development at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said, “The cyber threat to grid resiliency and the reality of a potential black start scenario is real, and the time to act is now.” He called for looking “at the problem from a cyber resiliency perspective rather than just cyber security.”

Mr. Yardley also called for focusing “on increasing the capabilities of our people as much, if not more, than we focus on our technology. … These capabilities can be achieved only if academia, industry, and government work closely together in a focused research, development, and education program.” He said that “Congress should continue to fund and increase funding to [the Department of Energy] and other government agencies to advance this research with broad engagement between Academia and Industry, building upon successes of the past.”

In response to a question from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.) about “the communications side,” Mr. Yardley drew a link between communications and cybersecurity. In addition to potential physical attacks on the communications links that utility networks rely on, a cyber attack could result in a situation of “they’re still there but you can’t trust them.” If someone were to launch an attack on the utility grid, there’s no reason to think that the communications networks would not also be attacked, he added.

Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) asked about provisions for testing communications systems and power backups for them.

Ms. Ditto said that utilities can resort to their own radio systems, but that they need spectrum and protection from interference. She added, “We’re vigilant about communications backup and having enough fuel.” She agreed that there should be testing.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) asked about interoperability issues.

Ms. Ditto explained, “When you’re in different bands, you use different equipment and can’t communicate with each other. … We’re not asking for dedicated spectrum because that ship has sailed.”

She added, “In rare situations we share spectrum with public safety, and that’s an opportunity going forward. … The way policy has developed at the FCC, there hasn’t been a focus on critical infrastructure.” She reiterated that “this is an area we’d like to get the FERC and the FCC together around. … Starting with the education of agencies would be good.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D., Nev.) asked her to elaborate on the idea of educating agencies.

Ms. Ditto said that the FCC does not have much expertise regarding the communications needs of critical infrastructure.

“Where is FERC on this issue?” Sen. Cortez Masto asked.

Witness David Ortiz, acting director of FERC’s Office of Electric Reliability, said that FERC has engaged with other agencies “with mutual interests,” such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but that he would have to check and report back regarding any engagement with the FCC.

Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) also asked whether there have been “any discussions ever between FERC and the FCC.”

Ms. Ditto said that there was no formal mechanism for such discussions. —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

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