Sherman: FCC Helping Railroads Secure Spectrum To Deploy PTC

In the wake of this week’s deadly Amtrak accident in Philadelphia, which the National Transportation Safety Board said could have been averted with the deployment of positive train control (PTC), the FCC today stressed that it has worked with railroads to help them secure spectrum for PTC.

“In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring Amtrak and other commuter and freight railroads to deploy interoperable PTC systems by December 31, 2015, but did not designate spectrum, a finite resource, for PTC use or make funds available for railroads to acquire access to spectrum,” Roger Sherman, chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, noted in a blog posting. “The railroads are seeking commercial spectrum to deploy PTC, which – by law – must be acquired at auction or from third parties,” Mr. Sherman added.

“Since Congress passed the law in 2008 requiring PTC, the FCC has been working closely with railroads and Amtrak to identify available spectrum on the secondary market and to approve transactions quickly. “We continue to be actively involved in helping freight and commuter trains such as Amtrak acquire spectrum,” Mr. Sherman stressed. “In fact, the FCC approved Amtrak’s application for spectrum for the Washington D.C. to New York corridor after an expedited review and just two days after Amtrak submitted a final amendment to the agency in March 2015.”

Railroads have complained for years of difficulties in securing spectrum, but the FCC has said that frequencies are available on the secondary market. The seven Class I freight railroads formed a consortium, PTC-220 LLC, to acquire 220 megahertz spectrum for PTC. Mr. Sherman also noted in his blog posting that the FCC manages “the mandatory historic preservation and environmental reviews of PTC system infrastructure.” The deployment of tens of thousands of antennas has been another sticking point for railroads, with companies saying the FCC’s process has slowed roll out.

Railroads say they don’t expect to have PTC fully deployed by the Dec. 31 deadline and have sought an extension from Congress. Last year, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP) approved a Program Comment sought by the FCC to facilitate the deployment of about 25,000 antennas (TRDaily, May 19, 2014).

Meanwhile, the FCC last year also announced a resolution with the seven Class I freight railroads concerning nearly, 11,000 antennas that were deployed outside of the environmental review and historic preservation process. Under the agreement, railroads agreed to pay $10 million to tribes and states. “Since implementing the new procedures authorized by the Program Comment, the Commission has had the capacity to receive substantially more PTC pole applications than the railroads have submitted,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a February letter to Rep. Doris Matsui (D., Calif.) (TRDaily, Feb. 27).

“Under the new review process, the Commission can accept applications for up to 1,400 poles from the major freight railroads every two weeks. As of January 23, 2015, the seven Class I freight railroads had submitted for review a total of 6,386 poles, out of a possible total of 25,200. . As indicated in the charts below, the number of PTC submissions has been rising since the Program Comment took effect, and the Commission has the capacity to process even more.”

The earlier delays in siting infrastructure would not have impacted Amtrak in the northeast corridor because the passenger rail entity already has infrastructure in place there to deploy PTC, according to the FCC. Meanwhile, in a PTC deployment report filed with the FCC May 1 in WT docket 08-256, PTC-220 said, “The last six months have seen important progress on two fronts. First, using the new expedited Section 106 review procedures, PTC-220 members have been able to submit wayside sites awaiting review, which has cleared the way for the construction of thousands of PTC wayside sites. Second, the FCC in March granted PTC-220’s pending waiver request and the construction of waiver-enabled base station sites has already begun.

PTC-220 is still awaiting a revised US-Canada agreement governing the 220 MHz band, however, which will allow construction of base station sites near the Canadian border.” As for spectrum availability, PTC-220 said that “the emerging picture is that PTC-220’s spectrum should be sufficient to support its PTC operations in most areas. Significant uncertainty remains, however, with regard to spectrum needs along the Northeast Corridor. The most immediate concern is for additional spectrum in the New York/Newark area, where PTC-220 has received recent requests from commuter railroads for additional PTC spectrum. As a result, PTC-220 is in discussions to acquire additional spectrum through the secondary market in New Jersey to help address this spectrum shortfall.”

In another spectrum development, the Wireless Bureau’s Mobility Division recently approved a spectrum swap between PTC-220 and the Association of American Railroads that is expected to help further PTC deployment (TRDaily, May 7). Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, said the railroad industry has focused too much on licensed spectrum. “The train industry could easily have deployed PTC using open spectrum and small cell hand off to fiber running along the tracks,” he told TRDaily. “We are using Wi-Fi beacons for enhanced 911 geolocation. The idea that we can’t put critical life and safety functions on unlicensed spectrum is no longer valid. Amtrak needs to hire engineers that understand modern network architecture, rather than keep trying to indulge a needless exclusivity fetish that drives up cost and delays deployment.”- Paul Kirby,