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FCC Initiates Inquiry To Explore Spectrum Needs Of Offshore Windfarms, Oil Rigs, And Other Offshore Infrastructure – Energy Law



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In a recent Notice of Inquiry, the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC or Commission) signaled that it may free up radio
spectrum for offshore broadband networks and connectivity to
land-based systems to support next generation energy sector uses.
The Commission is seeking comment on potential updates to its rules
regarding spectrum access for both private and commercial networks
to increase communications availability for both offshore windfarms
and oil rigs, as well as other offshore
infrastructure. Comments are due July 27, 2022, and
reply comments are due on August 26, 2022.

Background

Currently, in the energy sector, offshore spectrum is being used
to support offshore oil drilling, and primarily involves
geographic-based licensing limited to the Gulf of Mexico. In
addition, the FCC uses a site-based demand driven paradigm in many
spectrum bands to provide for narrowband spectrum access in the
Gulf of Mexico and in other U.S. territorial waters in the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans, including areas adjacent to the Continental
U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands,
American Samoa, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.  The
majority of site-based offshore authorizations are for Private Land
Mobile Radio services, radiolocation services, aviation-ground
services, and maritime coast stations. The FCC notes that there are
more than 1,400 active site-based licenses issued offshore across
many different radio services. The FCC’s rules also provide
for unlicensed operation and experimental radio use offshore, and
offshore energy platforms rely on a variety of technical options
for communications including satellite, microwave, fiber optic
submarine cables, and cellular.

The Notice is the first step toward facilitating offshore
operations through innovative spectrum management policies. Through
the Notice, the FCC is seeking to develop a record and understand
potential offshore operation uses that require spectrum, to
determine whether rule and policy changes are needed to facilitate
the development of offshore commercial and private networks, with a
particular emphasis on offshore energy projects.

Comments Sought

In its Notice, in addition to oil rigs, the Commission focuses
on the spectrum needs of the renewable energy sector, and in
particular, offshore windfarms. Robust wireless connections for
these offshore energy platforms would allow for the creation of
broadband networks connecting offshore facilities, such as multiple
wind turbines or drilling platforms, as well as between offshore
facilities and land-based locations.1 The FCC
anticipates that windfarms in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and
potentially beyond, may need spectrum for wireless services to the
site during construction of the windfarm, and for testing, daily
operation, and emergency maintenance, among other uses. To assist
in development of the record, the Commission seeks comment on
particular windfarm wireless use cases, and questions whether
current spectrum availability and licensing is deficient.

The FCC also seeks comment on other needs or uses for offshore
spectrum. Specifically, the FCC seeks comment on the demand for
offshore spectrum, where the demand is concentrated, and what
spectrum licensing models might meet this demand. The FCC wants to
understand the extent of demand for offshore spectrum, how much
spectrum would meet the demand, and how it might allocate spectrum.
With regard to spectrum allocation, the FCC seeks comment on the
potential use of models such as unlicensed use, spectrum leasing,
shared spectrum rights, or secondary operation authorizations, to
meet offshore spectrum needs, and the specific spectrum bands that
may facilitate offshore operations. 

The FCC also seeks comment on the infrastructure needed to
support offshore spectrum operations. Specifically, the FCC
questions the infrastructure needed to support base stations,
end-user equipment, fixed transmitters, beacons, and other
equipment offshore, and whether such infrastructure will be
fixed/stationary, drifting in the water, airborne, or deployed in
another way.

Differing Commissioner Policy Views

In the FCC June Open Meeting adopting the Notice, the differing
policy views between Commission Democrats and Republicans over
renewable versus carbon-based energy sources was evident. For
example, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr quipped,
“It’s got a bit of a convoluted name –
‘Facilitating Access to Spectrum for Offshore Uses and
Operations.’ I tried to propose the shorthand of the
‘Drill, Baby, Drill NOI,’ but we did not have unanimous
consent for making that change.”

In contrast, Commission Democrats, who are squarely aligning
themselves with Biden Administration initiatives to spur
offshore wind deployment as part of its broader clean energy
economy agenda, were focused on the needs of the offshore renewable
energy sector, and opportunities the Notice presented for aiding
the construction and operations of windfarms in both the Atlantic
and Pacific Oceans. 

“I support this Notice of Inquiry because it takes an
important step toward ensuring that our rules work for a clean
energy economy,” Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in a
statement. “By 2030, the federal government is targeting at
least 30 gigawatts in offshore wind capacity, more than one
thousand times 2019 deployments yet still a small fraction of our
total potential. […]  Real scale is on the horizon, and
each project will rely on wireless in one form or
another.”

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, also a Democrat, similarly noted
in her separate statement, that questions in the Notice are focused
on “the kind of offshore operations that may require access
to airwaves, the right combination of spectrum bands for these
uses, and creative licensed and unlicensed ideas for assigning
these rights.” This, in practice, the Chairwoman noted,
“can help the development of offshore windfarms that can
harness wind over water and covert it to renewable
electricity.”

As noted, comments on the Notice of Inquiry are due on
July 27, 2022, and reply comments are due August 26,
2022.

Footnote

1 As an example, one manufacturer touts its windfarm
private wireless communications solution as providing
mission-critical reliability and low-latency, broadband
connectivity for connecting workers, sensors, cameras, and
turbines.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.



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