Tales from the Towers, Chapter 46: 900MHz and SCADA – The FCC Double Standards

scada products

The 900MHz band used to be viable for wireless ISPs (WISPs).  Then the FCC started relaxing the rules and giving it away to companies that should be using different frequencies, like Progeny.  To add insult to injury, the FCC then gave Progeny an unfair advantage of higher power.  But as sleazy as the Progeny deal was that Julian pushed out the door for his buddies or bosses, I’m not sure which yet, it doesn’t even come close to the number of illegally power SCADA devices that almost every single municipality has in place.  Municipalities are so used to exceeding legal power limits on the SCADA 900Mhz devices they have in place, it’s become standard operating procedure and is even documented as being illegal in the RF analysis of their engineering studies.  And the worst part is that nobody, not even the FCC , is doing anything about it.

Municipalities make absolutely no effort to hide this violation. In many cases, civil engineering firms let this violation slip into the system from the beginning. The vast majority of SCADA devices that are deployed, use GE-MDS radios or something equivalent.  Most of them are very narrow-channel devices that use 64KHz or less. They also come with a 30dBm output capability. That isn’t illegal except that some of them can go as high as 36dBm.  Where the illegal part comes in is when they add either the 11dBi omni-directional antennas or the 10-12dBi Yagis. I’ve also seen some of them with 17dBi antennas. Even if you throw in cable loss, the specifications call for EIRP numbers in the 39-42dBi for them to work.  Since a lot of these links are in the 80 and 90dBm signal levels, that 6dBi over legal specs is the difference between working and not working.  Now throw in the oil rigs, and all the private industries that do SCADA and it is pretty evident that the FCC has completely ignored this band, that is, unless you are a WISP filing a complaint. In that case, they will probably audit the WISP filing the report first before they even bother with the municipality.

This has all the fingerprints of the 27MHz CB radio band from the 1970s. Wideband linear amplifiers were being sold in every truck stop and CB shop in the country. Why stop at 100 watts when that’s only a few dB over the legal 4 watt limit. Let’s go big with as much as 2000 watts when you really want to get out and touch someone, usually in Tokyo. I’d like to run a radiation counter on any trucker that worked in the 1970s because they are probably glowing more than Chernobyl. The clue they had one was when the typical semi that had 800 lights on it, started dimming worse than a dining room chandelier during a romantic dinner at 80 mph. Some of these amplifiers were so dirty that when I used one at the house, TV channels 2 and 5 simply went dark. Mom wasn’t so thrilled with my communications hobby when Monty Hall suddenly became silent and invisible so out the door went my 200W linear amplifier. The extreme story I remember was my neighbor with an 18dBi Yagi attached to what could only be described as a 2000W AMPZILLA on steroids.  There is nothing like 120,000 watts EIRP to get your point across. The end result of this power madness was a complete loss of control over the band and the FCC basically abandoning it.

The 902-928MHz band is heading there now. Ham operators were allowed up to 1.5 Watts versus the rest of the industry at 1 Watt from what I remember. But Ham Operators are ethical, understand the rules, and self-police of their bands, similar to WISPs. However, when Progeny decided to come in with higher power levels, Julius Genachowski gave them the traditional mafia kiss on the cheek on his way out the door (kind of reminds me of Eric Holder getting a pardon for Marc Rich who was on the FBI’s most wanted list from Bubba Bill Clinton). Too bad Genachowski didn’t stick around to take responsibility for his decision but that seems to be the standard operating procedure for all Obama appointees.  The WISPs then got the kiss on the lips and if you are a fan of “The Godfather”, it means get your affairs in order or learn to speak Swahili. In reality the standard for the industry is probably already at 40dBm from the lack of enforcement already.

So if you are a WISP, what to do?

I would first start with WISPA asking the FCC to send letters to every municipality to audit their SCADA RF transmitters. Since most of them have less security than my daughter’s old Barbie safe and have to be upgraded anyway to fix that issue, adding an RF audit at that time should be easy. Maybe we could outsource it to the Chinese since they are probably connected to most of the SCADA systems already and clearly their labor costs are lower. At the same time, we should be sending letters to the American Society of Civil Engineers and get them to make following the FCC rules as part of the certification process. They simply need to agree to stop taking RF reports that show this clear violation before they build out.

If the FCC is going to play favorites and allow private industry to destroy a previously useable unlicensed band, then at least they should do their jobs and clean up the guys who violate the rules every day. I get that SCADA is important but rules are rules. If WISPA has to follow the rules, then municipalities need to follow them, too. If not, what good are the rules and why should anyone follow them? Of course, cheating on your taxes seems to get you appointed to Chairman of the Federal Reserve or Treasury Secretary so ethics also aren’t exactly on the Obama list of requirements for approval. The logical conclusion based on the FCC’s actions is that if enough WISPs violate the rules, then the FCC will simply ignore everyone. Or most likely not do anything unless WISP operators step on Progeny’s toes since they seem to get special treatment. I just love it when the rules apply to everyone except the politically connected. Kind of like all the exemptions Democratic supporters such as unions got from the Obamacare albatross that is destroying small business, full-time jobs, and inevitably the best health-care in the world.

Maybe the way that WISPs can succeed is to promise to install solar and wind at every single AP and attach it to the grid. Then we can get the energy department to give us money for renewable energy and subsidize our installations. If we put up enough windmills and kill a few hundred thousand more birds, then apparently that is good for the environment. That little detail seems to get ignored by the EPA so maybe the FCC will ignore our over powered equipment at the same time. We just claim that we need the excessive power to monitor our SCADA system, and oh yeah, we are being energy-efficient by letting a few hundred users on it at the same time.  Sometimes I think that the government intentionally manufactures hypocrisy and lack of common sense in quantity. However, after reading how the rocket scientists at the Economic Development Council destroyed almost $3M dollars worth of equipment because they got infected from complete ineptitude, including printers, monitors, and mice, (http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2013/07/us-agency-baffled-by-modern-technology-destroys-mice-to-get-rid-of-viruses/) I sense that the intelligence and technology level of the average government workers is dropping fast.  But of course, nobody will be evaluated for incompetence or fired for this brilliant move.

Either way, the credibility of the FCC isn’t worth much (not that it’s worth much now in my opinion anyway based on recent rulings) if they don’t enforce rules that they themselves create. I can only guess that they weren’t aware of the problem or they would have taken steps to correct it. So Mr. Wheeler, here is your official notification that the band is now a disaster and your department hasn’t been doing its job for years (big surprise there unless butt-kissing the cellular industry and big residential carriers is really their job and we just didn’t get the memo). Hopefully this issue gets addressed and some sanity comes back into the band. Clearly the 700MHz may not be the future in the United States the way it’s being handled by the FCC anyway. It would be nice to get the 900MHz band back under control so that people that haven’t been driven out of it already can at least get comfortable until the next Progeny comes in and wants special favors. Either that or maybe the FCC can publicly explain how obvious disasters like Lightspeed or Progeny get approved against all logic and sense of fairness in the wireless industry.

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About Rory Conaway

Rory Conaway has been in the IT and Wireless Industries for the past 25 years as an author and consultant. He currently operates a growing WISP operation in Southern Arizona. He consults with investors, manufacturers, and WISPs, and develops financial business models for startups. In addition to writing articles in industry publications such as Mission Critical Magazine, Mr. Conaway also writes the series “Tales from the Towers” that can be found on various such as www.triadwireless.net and www.muniwireless.com. He has also engineered several wireless designs such as S.P.I.R.I.T. and Guerilla Wireless as well as building integrated wireless and video surveillance for airport security, municipal and critical infrastructure, SCADA systems, and hotel/MDU deployments.


  1. Even I agree that the credibility of FCC is not that up to the mark.