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Do Digital Utilities Need a Standard for Communications?

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writer and researcher BrightGreen PR

Julian Jackson is a writer whose interests encompass business and technology, cryptocurrencies, energy and the environment, as well as photography and film. His portfolio is...

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In the utility industry there is always a tension between private company practice and regulations or standards that might curb individual actions but benefit the wider industry and also the consumer.

Digitally the industry is moving forward rapidly. Is there a place for an industry-wide standard for digital communications? Globally, thousands of utilities are operating hundreds of thousands of communications networks — for smart metering, control and data acquisition architecture, substation automation, teleprotection, mobile workforce management, distribution automation, the list goes on. These are often proprietary networks: built and managed within single companies. One utility may be running more than 20 different communications networks for various purposes. This outcome does not make sense for either company or industry.

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The 4G LTE (4th Generation Long Term Evolution) wireless standard used around the world would be a viable choice for widespread use. It also opens a pathway to upgrade to 5G in the future. New spectrum bands, including licensed and shared options, are becoming available in different territories. The 4G LTE standard dominates the market (reaching 98 per cent of the US public) and has economies of scale now with global deployment by public wireless operators. 4G LTE has the latency and capacity to handle virtually all utility use cases. This makes it a good choice for a standardized system.

The benefits would include interoperability and simplified maintenance. Although there could be an initial outlay for companies, in the long run it should mean that training, O & M, equipment purchases and suchlike, would incur lower costs.

Another benefit is during emergency responses. In recent severe weather, crews have been sent from other utilities to the troubled area: it would be very helpful if they had the same operating network system so they could “plug-in” to the local utility's existing network.

Over next decade or so, a coordinated network of networks could ensure that utilities have top-class cybersecurity, facilitate industry cooperation, support regional balancing of distribution level load, and assist DER and renewable energy uptake. Ultimately, as 4G evolves, the network of networks could become a hub on which utilities can create new products enabled by the improved speed and large capacity of 5G.

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