MCP Insights

The Case for Private Long-Term Evolution Networks for Power Utilities

Posted on April 23, 2020 by Scott Neal

Next month, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to vote on reconfiguring the 900 MHz band for the deployment of broadband services and technologies. This is an important issue that Mission Critical Partners (MCP) has been tracking for some time, and we are encouraged to see a conclusion on the horizon. 

The following is an excerpt from the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s blog post, April 21, 2020:

“Leading off next month’s meeting will be a Report and Order to reconfigure the 900 MHz band for the deployment of broadband services and technologies. For decades, this band has been allocated for narrowband communications like two-way dispatch radios used by business, industrial, and land transportation licensees. The draft rules would make available six of the band’s ten megahertz for the deployment of broadband services, while retaining four megahertz to continue incumbent narrowband operations. The new regulatory framework would allow 900 MHz licensees, like utilities, to obtain broadband licenses and would include operational and technical rules to minimize harmful interference to narrowband operations. To facilitate the quick transition to broadband services, we would use a market-driven process that primarily relies on negotiated agreements between interested parties.”

Chairman Pai’s statement refers to a formal proposal to the FCC made five years ago by Anterix (formerly pdvWireless). The proposal called for reconfiguring narrowband spectrum licensed to the company in the 900 megahertz (MHz) band to a 3 X 3 MHz block of broadband spectrum to enable Long-Term Evolution (LTE) communications. A favorable vote on this matter in May by the FCC would be a tremendous boon to utilities, and ultimately their customers, by making this valuable spectrum available for deploying private broadband communications networks. We are very encouraged by the news of this pending vote and strongly encourage adoption of the rule to enable utilities to deploy more cost-effective and efficient critical communications networks.

What would happen if, in addition to the current challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we were to experience widespread power shortages or even outages? The result would be calamity. While we take electricity for granted, it truly is a mission-critical service. There is not much, if anything, that beats the significance of the electric power network.

The critical nature of electric power utilities has long been recognized and most are continually improving reliability in many areas. Activities performed by large electric power utilities include power generation, transmission and distribution, as well as retail, maintenance and field services. In addition, some utilities cover very large geographical areas, sometimes stretching thousands of miles over several states.

Critical needs for robust and efficient data communication networks have emerged as utilities pursue increased reliability of electric power delivery in their fast-changing environment. These include the smart grid, digital transformation, distribution automation, and advanced meter reading. New challenges have emerged as well, related to the quickly growing renewable energy sources—known in utility industry jargon as distributed energy resources (DERs)—the expected exponential growth of electric vehicles, and new forms of energy storage.

There are also practical day-to-day factors that must be considered. For instance, let’s say that during a storm a tree falls, and in the process downs electric power lines. In such a circumstance, the ability to remotely turn off power to those lines from a control station located miles away, within milliseconds (ms), potentially will save lives and/or hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment damage and labor.

All of these opportunities, challenges and factors have one thing in common—they require broadband communications capabilities to handle the vast volumes of data that will be gathered, transmitted and processed, and to deliver the ultra-low latency demanded by some applications.

So, what communications capabilities do electric power utilities leverage today? Some sources estimate that larger utilities use up to 15 different voice and data networks, although some—such as Ameren and Southern Company—are known to have used more than 20. Imagine the headaches this situation creates, given the logistics of network configuration and maintenance, training and cybersecurity, in addition to paying for services provided by non-utility-owned networks.

Until recently, there was no solution for easing such headaches. Now, however, strong evidence is emerging that private Long-Term Evolution (LTE)/5G networks might be the solution.

Why LTE?

LTE has been available for more than a decade, and it has kept the promise included in its name, i.e., it is the recognized path to 5G, making today’s investments future-proof. Based on a global standard promulgated by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), LTE provides many advantages:

  • It assures interoperability via a rich ecosystem of compliant products and technologies
  • Economies of scale are provided by the enormous volume of LTE-compliant devices, numbering in the billions worldwide
  • The LTE market is highly competitive, thus assuring good selection of solutions and vendors, as well as decreasing equipment and software pricing
  • A wide selection of spectrum options is available, including licensed, unlicensed, and shared arrangements

LTE is a truly integrated voice and data technology, suitable for all kinds of demanding applications, from short messages all the way through high-quality video. Because the inherent latency is low and can be controlled, there are indications that the technology is suitable for even the most sensitive situations. In last year’s tests at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, latency below 30 ms consistently was achieved, even with high traffic volumes.

Standardization of LTE technology permits reasonably priced and power-efficient chipsets that enable wireless devices to be manufactured to provide high throughput suitable for widespread deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT). LTE networks are capable of mixing both high- and low-level densities of devices— making it feasible to install sensors and modems on individual utility poles to monitor and report network integrity. Large electric power utilities are responsible for thousands of poles that support cables and equipment, the status of which is important to isolating faults that may interrupt service.

There are a multitude of spectrum options to support LTE, some of which are suitable for building wide area networks (WANs) covering both low-density rural areas and high-density urban environments. 900 MHz satisfies both of those operating environments.

Due to the robust schema used for their over-the-air protocol, LTE networks provide a high level of interference resiliency. Adaptive modulation schemes allow the information flow to continue, albeit at a slower rate, in the face of interference or network congestion. While the information flow may slow, it is unlikely to be completely interrupted.

LTE has a very impressive list of advanced features, giving it unparalleled functionality and flexibility including quality of service (QoS) and priority and preemption—advanced mobility, and scalability —from a single station (eNodeB in LTE jargon) to very wide area networks.

Because LTE is a global standard designed primarily for the consumer market, it has been developed with high levels of cybersecurity protections from the very beginning. Advanced end-to-end encryption and provisions for authentication-ensuring subscriber identification module (SIM) cards are just two of the important cybersecurity features provided by LTE networks.

Why private?

Given LTE’s performance advantages, why aren’t all electric power utilities switching over to one of the commercial wireless carriers in the U.S. and retiring all other communications systems? Essentially, it is because commercial carriers focus on the enormous consumer markets and are unable—some would say unwilling—to make all of LTE’s flexibility and advantages available to industrial entities within a guaranteed service level agreement (SLA). For example, can an electric power utility be assured that its critical control functions will not be impaired when millions of wireless subscribers are streaming the Super Bowl?

Moreover, commercial carriers are profit driven. That translates into limited flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of industrial entities, even large, major investor-owned utilities. This issue has been cited publicly by Ameren and Southern Company. Commercial carriers were unwilling to commit to the requested QoS, coverage and other requirements.

Private ownership of a custom-built LTE network is the answer, because it provides the winning combination of highly suitable technology with total network control.

The advantages of a privately-owned LTE network are numerous:

  • Coverage—The king of any wireless system’s requirements. With private ownership, the number and location of sites can be designed up front to meet the requirements of the organization; they also can be adjusted as needs change—for example, if a new power plant is constructed or an old plant is shut down.
  • Capacity—When device density does not coincide with the general population, or changes due to specific activities, additional sites can be provided on a permanent or temporary basis as needed to support the required data volumes.
  • Configuration and customization—In the consumer world, voice communications may have priority over other types of traffic, primarily data; in a network owned and operated by an electric power utility, data communications likely will require preferential treatment—for example, the need to disconnect faulty circuits likely will take priority over any other traffic.
  • Upgrades and maintenance—The ability to plan upgrades or maintenance so that they do not interfere with the utility’s primary mission, as opposed to depending on a commercial carrier’s schedule, is a key item for any mission-critical operation.
  • Expansion—Electric power utilities exist in a dynamic environment—mergers and acquisitions are common and such events may require network expansion. Experience has shown that incompatibilities concerning the respective communications networks can delay or diminish post-acquisition/merger integration of the involved utilities.
  • Access to multiple spectra (licensed, unlicensed or shared)—The ability to mix and match spectrum can be advantageous, because doing so may provide technical and financial advantages. For example, not all applications are equally sensitive, and devices that operate in unlicensed spectrum may be significantly less expensive than equipment operating in the licensed airwaves. Also, different frequency ranges are characterized by different coverage performance; hence, mixing and matching them is another important design-optimization tool.
  • Security—In addition to the cybersecurity features inherent to LTE, private ownership of a network provides an opportunity for total isolation from public networks, if so desired.
  • Reliability and resilience—Both are crucial and often are cited as the commercial wireless networks’ Achilles heel; commercial carriers are just not that concerned about losing a site for a while and are reluctant to invest in physical security, backup power, redundant backhaul and other measures required by electric power utilities; with a privately owned network, utilities are in total control of the reliability aspects of network design
  • Fixed cost/revenue potential: Last, but not least, private ownership provides not only a potentially higher level of cost control over the costs, but also, under some circumstances, provides income opportunities borne of sharing excess resources with other entities

Conclusion

Electric power utilities have numerous and myriad challenges, opportunities and day-today challenges that require robust, reliable and cost-effective broadband communications. While LTE networks on a high level will meet this need, those offered by commercial wireless carriers will not. Consequently, electric power utilities seriously should consider deploying a private LTE network to realize all the advantages identified in this whitepaper. A favorable vote in May by the FCC on the 900 MHz proposal would be a tremendous start. However, it only will be the beginning. It can be anticipated that as needs continue to evolve for utilities and others over the coming years regarding reliable and robust data networks, additional licensed broadband spectrum must be made available to satisfy the demand. Stakeholder entities will need to work closely with government officials to develop creative solutions to the anticipated spectrum demand.

This post was co-authored by Scott Neal, vice president, director of wireless services, Darek Wieczorek, PMP, project manager and senior consultant, and Michael Hunter, director of wireless services . Scott can be reached at ScottNeal@MissionCriticalPartners.com. Darek can be reached at DarekWieczorek@MissionCriticalPartners.com. Mike can be reached at MikeHunter@MissionCriticalPartners.com.

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