The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) has raised concerns over the deployment of advanced metering infrastructure using unlicensed spectrum in the 865-868 MHz frequency band. The association, which represents major telecom operators in India, said that such deployment not only poses a risk to the security of data but is also causing revenue loss to the government.

The comments from COAI come as the Ministry of Power and the spectrum wing of the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) have permitted the advanced metering infrastructure service providers to use the radio frequency (RF) mesh technologies in both licensed and unlicensed frequency for deploying smart metre systems infrastructure in the country.

In a letter to the DoT dated March 10, 2023, COAI has stated that as this infrastructure will rely on unlicensed spectrum and equipment with limited or no security, external persons or agencies may get central access to the control centre as well as databases required for the operation of the smart grid through security infringement. They can severely disrupt the operations of public utility infrastructure with the intent to harm. COAI added that RF mesh networks in unlicensed spectrum have limited security built for data and signalling in contrast with the equipment deployed by licensed telecom service providers (TSPs). On the contrary, all devices and equipment provided by licensed TSPs have to be approved as part of trusted devices. 

To this end, COAI has urged DoT to recommend the Ministry of Power to use the licensed spectrum bands and the infrastructure created under the telecom licence for such smart metering solutions. The association also stressed the need to ensure a level-playing field among all stakeholders with regard to deploying such infrastructure using telecom technology.

As per COAI, telecom operators acquire spectrum and pay a share of revenue as spectrum usage charges, licence fee etc. to the government, while the users of unlicensed spectrum bands do not have to pay such charges to the government. This causes revenue loss to the government. Another argument put forward by the telcos is that deploying large-scale advanced metering infrastructure solution with unlicensed spectrum can disrupt operations of public infrastructure. They can severely disrupt the operations of public utility infrastructure with an intent to harm. On the other hand, as this system will not have stringent compliance or monitoring requirements, human errors or internal incidents can also result in such failure along with major accountability issues.

Additionally, COAI has flagged the issue of quality of services (QoS) as the use of low-quality equipment under the unlicensed spectrum for advanced metering infrastructure may interfere with the licensed spectrum, thereby leading to service quality issues. This can cause performance degradation in the unlicensed band, leading to impact on the QoS, thereby leading to potential disruption of critical public infrastructure. In case any significant security breach happens in a nationwide smart grid, along with disruption in essential administrative and utility services, it can also cause massive loss in revenues of the government at state/UT as well as central levels.