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Understanding Private LTE’s Value and (True) Total Cost of Ownership

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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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  • Oct 11, 2022

This item is part of the Utility Guide to Private LTE - OCTOBER 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Proven and more prevalent, Private LTE (PLTE) is quickly becoming the top choice for digitalizing the grid.   Not only does LTE have the performance and security capabilities needed to manage the data-intensive applications expected from grid modernization and renewable integration, but the carrier-grade technology is virtually future-proof. Backed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and an established supplier ecosystem, PLTE is proving to be utilities’ network of choice for digital transformation.  But what is the value utilities see in Private LTE?

Demands for Decarbonization

By 2050, 44% of generation will be renewables according to the U.S. EIA[1].  With renewable generation comes increased variable power sources and time variances; a powerful network is needed to manage and maintain the system’s integrity.

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Advancing Edge

The centralized utility landscape has changed to a decentralized operation to accommodate distributed generation assets, DERs and demand response programs.  Computing and operations are no longer one way from generation to end user but will be designed to manage the bi-directional power flow associated with a dynamic energy marketplace.

Device Densification

To support an envisioned grid where it still coordinates energy supply and demand between utilities and third-party asset owners, the number of IP-enabled intelligent electronic devices on the grid can increase up to +1,500% by 2050.  A robust, private LTE network will enable utilities to move and process this data at the speed required to maintain grid reliability.  

Focus on Cybersecurity

Due the densification of all of these IP-enabled devices and more third-parties interconnecting to the grid, cybersecurity is a growing concern.  As mission-critical infrastructure, utilities demand always-on, priority network access they can control and secure to industry standards. LTE is carrier-grade technology backed by global standards and a robust supplier ecosystem. Make it private, and utilities have the confidence to digitally transform and realize a more intelligent and secure grid.

Now you see the value and can make your case for PLTE, the next step is understanding the total cost of ownership (TCO) of deploying a PLTE network.  Here are four factors not to miss when conducting your cost analysis to build a strong case for PLTE.


You may be surprised to know; spectrum is not always the most expensive item in the budget. Though it can greatly impact long-term capital and operational expenditures.  Some spectrums may have a higher sticker price but yield higher propagation than others, meaning there will be less infrastructure to build, operate and maintain.  On the other end of the spectrum (pun intended) - a low-cost spectrum solution may end up needing more towers and therefore more capital investment.  

PLTE can operate on licensed, shared and unlicensed spectrum. Each come with their own benefits, and should be evaluated against your funding availability, performance requirements, security and physical characteristics. Be careful not to be lured by a low upfront cost, without considering the operational or performance ramifications you may endure from neighboring frequency interference or dropped connections.

Purchasing spectrum can be daunting but should not be immediately dismissed.  Costs may be offset by subleasing spectrum to nearby businesses, education campuses or industrial complexes to provide a new revenue source and improve your ROI.   Weighing all of these elements will be key to understanding the true cost of spectrum. 

Network Design & Deployment  

When conducting a cost analysis for a PLTE network, determining the number of sites and associated infrastructure is essential.  An accurate RF (Radio Frequency) path analysis and network design will reveal the number and location of sites needed to meet coverage and capacity requirements.   Don’t overlook site location and physical access to the site for maintenance and restoration, as well as access to fiber.  (Plus, if new sites are needed, time and cost for acquisition and permitting should be included.)  It’s also important to prepare and design for network redundancy, as well as backup power options that consider easy maintenance or sustainability like, hydrogen fuel cells.  Finally, assessing existing infrastructure to identify which assets can be leveraged for the new network will pay off immensely in the end.

Operations & Maintenance 

Transitioning to a PLTE Network comes with inherent benefits and efficiencies that can translate to lower operational expense.  First, LTE enables utilities to converge applications into a single, simplified network, eliminating the need to operate and maintain separate networks.  As for security, the word private alone evokes notions of more separation and control rather than having information accessible through someone else’s network.  But more than that, PLTE uses SIM-based security, enabling encryption and authorization at the device or application layer.  Something becoming more critical as more IP gateways are connected to the utility enterprise.   The digital foundation will also be more flexible, adaptable and easier to scale and upgrade as the amount of data rises in unison with the number of digital devices added on the grid, while purpose-built to your specific performance needs.

Cost of Doing Nothing

The digital transformation is not reserved for utilities alone; individual and business consumers have embraced digitalization.  

New market entrants and asset owners are disrupting the comfort of utilities’ traditional monopoly status and altering the unidirectional landscape to a complex, bi-directional one.   Utilities are at a turning point.  Do you continue operating disparate networks designed for specific application requirements, and/or continuing to replace aging equipment and hoping it doesn’t become obsolete?  Or do you invest in foundational network technology that will adapt with the changing market demands and grow with your business and customer needs?

Without an advanced private network with the coverage and capacity of an LTE system, will you be able to become the grid of the future.  Will you be able to manage increasingly complex operations made up of distributed generation assets and DERs whether wind, solar, storage, EVs or demand response without a connected intelligent system?   

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 11, 2022

When conducting a cost analysis for a PLTE network, determining the number of sites and associated infrastructure is essential.

After the network is established, will forward looking planning require looking at additional sites/infrastructure needed? And if so, with what frequency should that be done? 

Tim  Sill's picture
Tim Sill on Oct 18, 2022

Hey Matt, once you establish your wireless network it is critical to plan for future business needs.  Things that can drive additional sites are expansion of the electrical distribution grid, new DER locations, expansion of application layers, etc.  In some cases, reoptimizing the wireless network, such as changing RF coverage areas by antenna adjustments or adding/replacement of antennas, can resolve expansion needs.  However there are also cases where additional network sites will be needed. With PLTE the network typically uses the same frequency you have on surrounding sites as long as the existing frequency is available to be used.  For instance, spectrum licenses for 900MHz, CBRS, etc. or even unlicensed spectrum (5GHz UNII) that cover the expansion areas.  

Should the expansion area not have a common frequency available as the existing network, it is not critical.  Most PLTE networks are focused on Fixed Wireless Access which does not require mobility features (e.g. mobile handovers) so a different frequency can be used where needed.

David Hulinsky's picture
Thank David for the Post!
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