Tuesday, March 16, 2010

National Broadband Plan, Chapter 12: How do we get utilities into the spectrum business?

By Clyde Ensslin, Advisor to greentech startup People Power Co

I went over to the Federal Communications Commission this morning for the official release of the National Broadband Plan that FCC has been working on since last year. Various pieces of the Plan have been disclosed over the past few days so I knew that it was going to address the Smart Energy Grid and I wanted to learn more about the details related to that. For the past year I’ve been advising a Palo Alto, California-based greentech startup called People Power, so I am familiar with the work NIST is doing to approve interoperative standards for smart grid equipment.

When I got to the Commission I was directed to an overflow room because the meeting room was packed. There was a very nice, large, high definition flat-screen TV in the overflow room and I saw presentations by the staff and heard statements by the Commissioners. I learned that Congress had asked the Commission, in the statute that spelled out what should be in the Plan, for recommendations that would not only lead to broadband access for more Americans, but also would help reach National Purposes including energy independence and energy efficiency.

I knew that energy efficiency among consumers was the Plan’s Long-Term Goal #6 because that was in the Executive Summary that had been posted yesterday to the FCC Website. That goal states that all Americans should be able to use broadband to track and manage their energy consumption. The remaining parts of the Plan addressing the Smart Energy Grid were in Chapter 12, which was so interesting that I printed up all 15 pages.

Essentially, Chapter 12 is full of ideas about how to get utilities to interact with their customers via broadband. Idea number one is for utilities to give their consumers something valuable that they don’t get today that can only be delivered by broadband. That would be real-time usage data, based in kilowatts and in dollars, which is obviously hugely valuable, but it’s also data that 99 percent of all utility customers have never seen. This requirement would mean that utilities would need to provide the same information that they now mail out once a month, only more frequently, like every five minutes.

What motivation would the utilities have to start doing this within the next 18 months? Well, maybe if their state regulators asked them to do it. That’s what the Plan suggests. It’s not too big a stretch in states like California, where the state legislature has already mandated access for consumers to that data. And if the state regulators don’t get the job done, FCC will ask Congress to legislate that solution. The logic is, and this makes perfect sense, if utilities give this data to their customers, the customers will appreciate it so much that they will do their part and acquire the devices they need to interact with their utility. For startups like People Power, that is great news. It will mean that innovation is rewarded by investment dollars and potential partnerships.

Other ideas in the Plan have a variety of other ways for the utilities to get in the broadband business, including: empowering them to manage their own private broadband networks, either by using commercial networks, by sharing public safety mobile spectrum, or maybe with spectrum leased from, or bought at auction from…who? Maybe broadcasters? That’s in another chapter. I didn’t get to that part.

No comments: