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Private LTE Networks Are the Key to Unlocking the Future of Utilities

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David Hulinsky's picture
Director Black & Veatch

David Hulinsky, P.E. is a Director at Black & Veatch with over 20 years of experience specializing in development of private networks and automation systems. He has successfully led some of...

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  • Aug 21, 2020 10:45 pm GMT
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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2020-08 - LTE Networks, click here for more

By Mark Burke, David Hulinsky, Gregory McGovern

The electric grid is undergoing the most significant transformation in its history. Rapidly emerging digital technologies and devices continue to spur an evolution away from the traditional centralized system and one-way power flows, and toward a more distributed system that can support dynamic, two-way power requirements while also ensuring reliability, efficiency and security.

Many different connected digital device types are moving to the grid’s edge and becoming increasingly densified. While fiber is also becoming increasingly common for major communication nodes, the sheer number of devices, throughout the service territories, may only be connected with an advanced wireless network. This advanced network supports the traditional LMR, AMI and SCADA devices but, it will also support many new services and device types including devices that are yet to be developed.

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The FCC’s recent Report and Order allowing the use of the 900 MHz band for private LTE/5G wireless broadband networks gives electric utilities a unique opportunity to accelerate grid modernization. This low broadband spectrum with great propagation characteristics and favorable FCC technical specifications enables the integration of digital technologies, automation, renewable energy sources, mission critical push-to-talk field communications and other advances emerging in the sector. Private LTE wireless broadband networks will provide the reliable, secure, high-speed communications foundation for a smarter and more connected electric grid.

Private LTE Networks are the Future

The world is rapidly evolving. Energy demands are growing and new technologies such as electric vehicles and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are arriving on the scene at an accelerated rate. Private LTE and 5G networks offer utilities the opportunity to advance the grids communication technology with a standards-based worldwide technology and large supplier eco-system. This technology will continue to evolve and be integrated into billions of new devices. Utilities will be able to choose how advanced their network needs to be and purchase only the features and capabilities needed for the uses cases they need. This software defined and upgradeable network will be cost appropriate to meet the needs of the current and future grid.   

Legacy wireless networks have historically been built on propriety narrow-band radio equipment that does not have the capacity, coverage or reliability to meet the needs of all connected devices. As a result, utilities have deployed multiple networks to serve individual uses cases and platforms. For example, a downline distribution automation network on a 220-MHz band, a land mobile radio network on the 450-MHz band, and a metering network, on the unlicensed 900-MHz ISM band. This results in three limited-capability networks that are heavily dependent on vendor viability and in some cases the secondary equipment market since the original manufacturer may have discontinued the equipment.

Private LTE/5G is a standards-based technology that enables the transition from multiple networks to one multi-service network platform. The 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project) LTE/5G standard was designed from the ground up to support a wide variety of use cases. It is worldwide and continues to evolve guaranteeing the long network life required by a private network owner. LTE and 5G both offer broadband, narrowband, low latency, security, enhanced reliability, dense connections and the other performance features required by current and future utility smart grid use cases. A private network is purpose built, designed to cover the utilities service area, designed specifically to support the utilities’ performance requirements and designed to be as reliable and resilient as required by the utility.   

Implementing an advanced version of LTE and/or 5G enables network slicing, roaming and infrastructure sharing revenue. Network slicing enables physical network resources (radios and core) to be assigned and virtually shared with multiple end users. The network slice guarantees a specific set of network performance key performance indicators (i.e. throughput and latency) to be measured and verified.  Utilities may use network slices on a Private network to separate traffic use cases and guarantee required performance for a particular use case such as SCADA. Commercial carriers will be able to offer utilities network slices to fill gaps in coverage and or capacity. Utilities will be able to offer network slices to carriers to fill in either coverage, capacity or other specific needs.   

Private LTE wireless broadband networks would also allow the utility to add more applications in the same network infrastructure, enabling a wide variety of additional use cases that could be leveraged by different organizations within the utility. For example, Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) drones for transmission line inspection requires both a highly reliable, low latency network for command and control and a high throughput network for real time video transmission. LTE and 5G both have the capability to support both drone use cases described. Flown beyond the visual range, these drones cover great distances, collecting high-resolution data in fewer deployments. BVLOS drones are more cost-effective than helicopters and planes, with the added benefit of increasing safety by removing people from potentially dangerous situations.

Once enabled with LTE, utilities can implements other applications, such as distributed field high density video monitoring and/or training; public safety initiative like gunshot monitoring and triangulation; and advanced low-latency applications, such as wildfire monitoring and mitigation.

Conclusion

Historically, utilities have been stymied by the availability and affordability of broadband spectrum. But the FCC’s recent move gives utilities the opportunity to acquire spectrum at a reasonable cost, opening the door for utilities to embrace broadband LTE networks and enabling greater future-proof systems taking advantage of economies of scale, both in the vendor community and the technology. Total Cost of Ownership will continue to come down as the connections grow into the billions and technologies evolve.

Utilities who invest in private LTE wireless networks today will have their smart communications foundation in place to meet both current and future needs, enabling the grid of the future! 

David Hulinsky's picture
Thank David for the Post!
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Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Aug 31, 2020

When you say the FCC’s recent move gives utilities the opportunity to acquire spectrum at a reasonable cost, do you mean by buying it or leasing it?

I wrote a post in April about Ameren signing a letter of intent to execute a long-term lease for spectrum from a company called Anterix, which says it owns 60 percent of all the licensed spectrum in the 900 MHz band and has coverage throughout the contiguous United States, as well as Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.

Xcel, meanwhile, is using public LTE services and is considering building its own private LTE network, according to Light Reading.

 

Matt Acton's picture
Matt Acton on Oct 5, 2020

My understanding is the spectrum acquisition is a long-term lease, although I'd suggest any model is possible at a "reasonable" price :D

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