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4G LTE Projects Come With Years of Valuable Lessons

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Benjamin Benton's picture
Solution Architect Burns & McDonnell

Private LTE senior solutions architect for the Networks, Integration & Automation Group at Burns & McDonnell. In a 20-year career, Ben has served in senior leadership roles with a number...

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  • Sep 30, 2021
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021-09 - LTE Networks, click here for more

The ongoing build-out of private wireless broadband telecommunications infrastructure for utilities is still in its relatively early stages. Already some lessons are clear from utility projects, while others from the carrier space are also applicable. Here are eight key learnings that any utility contemplating a private LTE (PLTE) rollout should closely consider.

1. Understand the stage gate approval process and work relentlessly at solving for that first.

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As you gain an understanding of each of the inputs and stakeholders for the stage gate process, it is important to treat the approval process like a project in and of itself. If the program doesn’t get approved or stumbles early, it can often be hard to fully recover. You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression, so focus on getting it right the first time. This includes being certain that the use cases selected for the initial deployment are fully executable and that 100% success is attainable. If the initial deployment creates doubt in the plan, it will be hard for others to trust the effort and fully support the continued deployment.

2. Develop an architecture and a supporting plan, and stick to it.

A strong governance and change control process must be followed ruthlessly. Though there will be new technologies, architectures, use cases or devices that will be brought forward throughout the deployment lifecycle, don’t let them be a distraction that pulls your focus away from success. Don’t be blind to them, but remember that new ideas and approaches do not necessarily require a new plan and different doesn’t always mean better. Plenty of new ideas will come up. Let governance determine what you implement, and do not let anything steer you away from managing schedule and budget.

3. Program team continuity starts early.

Make sure that early decisions can be supported during future engineering, construction and operations phases. This continuity is built by having critical stakeholders involved at the outset. Consider making reporting structure and other organizational modifications early. This will also help ease the transition into operations. For example, consider having key members of the operations staff in place to participate in the design and engineering phases of the project. This will help set common goals and allow the operations staff to have input in decisions that affect the network design and long-term operations. It will likely benefit future operations and network performance, given ownership and early buy-in.

4. An effective PMO drives success.

The scale of an LTE program is likely larger than nearly all other telecommunications programs a utility has previously executed. The importance of an established and effective project management office (PMO) should not be underestimated. There will be multiple workstreams across the core, RAN, infrastructure and devices, and each will require strong project management and project controls to bring it all together. The lighter you go on the PMO, the more pain you will feel in integrating all of the complex pieces. Collaboration balanced with accountability is key.

5. This is an inflection point for change.

Executing a program of this scale and scope can be a great opportunity to fundamentally change the way you do things as a business. Use this as an opportunity to modernize drawing and documentation systems. There are several sophisticated software packages that can literally transform operations and maintenance, creating efficiencies that you may not have thought possible. Think about the concept of digital twins, for example. By linking the engineered design model to the operations model, new efficiencies will emerge that will take you years into the future.

6. Identify and leverage a strong executive sponsor.

Highly placed leadership can be invaluable in pulling together the organization and leading it through this change. This high-level support will create the momentum necessary to direct all operating units, making it clear: “The system being deployed WILL be used by all.” Allowing operating companies to go down their own path will only create discontent among all the users. This support should be at a level high enough that it can’t be ignored. The message must be clearly understood and flow through all layers of the organization.

7. Don’t ignore or fully outsource the complexity. Embrace it.

Yes, the LTE network is a complex system, but that’s OK. You will be rewarded for understanding how the system was architected and designed, especially when it’s in service and you run into challenges. As with many complex systems, complications are a near certainty and understanding how the pieces — RAN, core and devices — work together is essential.

8. De-risk your supply chain through partnership and collaboration.

Technology and workforce supply chains are constrained and there is no sign of this easing up in the near term. The earlier you can bring the right partners into the fold so they understand your requirements, timelines, how you work, and your expectations, the better they can plan and proactively respond to your needs. Things may take longer right now, so plan for it early. This partnership concept includes the commercial arrangements you choose to engage them under and making sure right project components reside with the right supply chain partners. Don’t take contracting strategy for granted, especially when many providers haven’t worked in and around energized equipment before.

At Burns & McDonnell, our team is actively working with more than a dozen utilities across the U.S. on  wireless broadband needs — providing full end-to-end services, from consulting through to delivery.

We know that throughout the process, it's important to embrace new insights. To do this, it is important for the ecosystem of suppliers and technology providers to come together through trade bodies in order to help the utility industry go on that journey. 

The process of deploying and installing wireless telecommunications systems such as private LTE and related devices is an iterative one. No matter how carefully you plan, new challenges will arise as these programs move from design, to installation, to operation. Partnership and collaboration will allow you to work through them.

This is to be expected and follows patterns that have proved consistent as any new technology or improvement moves into the market. There is always new insight to be gained as the network gets deployed, systems are activated, devices are provisioned, and time moves on.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 30, 2021

The process of deploying and installing wireless telecommunications systems such as private LTE and related devices is an iterative one. No matter how carefully you plan, new challenges will arise as these programs move from design, to installation, to operation. Partnership and collaboration will allow you to work through them.

Does this suggest that a well prepared utility should really have a full team/department dedicated to this areas rather than having it be something that falls under the existing umbrella of a department? 

John Benson's picture
John Benson on Oct 14, 2021

I posted a four-part series on various types of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) over three years ago. I just added part-5 explaining want is happening and probably will happen as AMI systems evolve to newer networks. I would suggest you read parts 1-4 before reading part 5. All of these are linked below.

https://www.energycentral.com/c/iu/advanced-metering-infrastructure-ami-part-1-roots

https://www.energycentral.com/c/iu/ami-%E2%80%93-part-2-creating-demand

https://www.energycentral.com/c/iu/ami-part-3-technology-basics

https://energycentral.com/c/iu/ami-part-4-%E2%80%93-internet-things

https://energycentral.com/c/gr/ami-part-5-%E2%80%93-new-networks

Paul Korzeniowski's picture
Paul Korzeniowski on Oct 19, 2021

Many good points but one I thought was especially relevant:

 

6. Identify and leverage a strong executive sponsor.

Highly placed leadership can be invaluable in pulling together the organization and leading it through this change.

 

Employees are quite busy, so trying to get them understand how the technology works and its potential benefits can be challenging. But with the right backer, they will pay attention. 

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