​By Kevon Storie

Spectrum management—regulating the use of radio frequencies to promote efficient allocation—is critical to WAPA’s core mission.

Microwave radio systems are the primary means WAPA uses for monitoring and controlling its power transmission system. Without them, power system dispatchers would not be able to see power loads, open and close breakers or tell if power transformers were overloaded or overheating. The health of the entire power grid is seen through the data transmitted to the dispatching centers by microwave and fiber optic systems. 

Linemen, electricians and other craft personnel rely on WAPA’s mobile radio system to communicate with dispatchers when constructing, maintaining or repairing power lines, substations and other facilities. The effective management of the Department of Energy radio spectrum also ensures reliable communications for the National Nuclear Security Administration, the national labs, power marketing administrations and other organizations. 

With so much at stake, WAPA must be confident it can operate at more than a 99.9999 percent level of reliability, which translates to about 20 seconds of outage time per year. 

Necessary in emergencies 

The importance of spectrum management is never more evident than when disaster strikes, such as during the recent Carr Fire in northern California. Mobile radio systems enabled maintenance crews to communicate with each other. When portions of the infrastructure were destroyed, mobile communications allowed WAPA to set up temporary infrastructure to continue operations. This experience, along with WAPA’s relief efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, demonstrates that mobile voice command systems are essential for emergency restoration capability. 

However, the Carr Fire also identified some gaps and opportunities for improvement. The fire revealed that WAPA needs radio spectrum across the entire operations area, because during the fire there were areas in the service territory without complete coverage. 

WAPA is in the process of licensing and building several tactical mobile repeaters that operate on frequencies that can be used across much of the United States, allowing WAPA crews to support system restoration anywhere in the country. These repeaters will be deployed in conjunction with the replacement of aging mobile equipment over the next few years. 

Finding funding to upgrade 

In 2007, federal agencies gave up a portion of their spectrum to the Federal Communications Commission to be auctioned to Advanced Wireless Services providers. The proceeds from the auction of this band were used to relocate federal users of that spectrum to alternate radio spectrum and telecommunications technologies.  

Proceeds from the Spectrum Relocation Fund allowed WAPA to relocate all of the radio systems operating in the 2-gigahertz band. In effect, the AWS providers paid for WAPA to replace some of its oldest radio networks with a new hybrid radio-and-fiber operational telecommunication network. 

In light of the growth in commercial uses of the radio spectrum – particularly mobile phones and wireless computer networks – spectrum management remains central to WAPA’s strategy and operations. 

Sidebar: Spectrum Relocation Fund enables innovation, flexibility in spectrum use 

Congress created the Spectrum Relocation Fund in 2007 to help federal agencies defray the costs of making more spectrum available for commercial use. The goal of the SRF was to open the door for commercial access to the spectrum by reimbursing agencies for costs associated with repurposing the spectrum they use in performing critical missions. 

Modifying agency communications systems to use a different spectrum band or to share spectrum with commercial providers can be costly. The SRF supports the efforts of federal agencies as they work to identify 500 megahertz of additional federal and nonfederal spectrum for wireless broadband services, both licensed and unlicensed, by 2020. 

In 2015, Congress made important enhancements to the SRF to broaden the scope of expenses eligible for reimbursement. The Spectrum Pipeline Act enabled agencies to use funds from the SRF to pay for research and related activities that promise to increase spectrum efficiency and which may lead to repurposing of spectrum for commercial use. These modifications provide an initial $500 million in funding as well as a mechanism to replenish the funding pool with proceeds from future auctions.

Note: Storie is a technical writer who works under the Wyandotte Services contract.

Last modified on September 12th, 2023