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5G Likely Will Have a Big Effect on the Electric Power Industry, but Not for a While

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Peter Key's picture
Freelance Writer, Editor, Consultant, Self-employed

I've been a business journalist since 1985 when I received an MBA from Penn State. I covered energy, technology, and venture capital for The Philadelphia Business Journal from 1998 through 2013....

  • Member since 2015
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  • Feb 10, 2020

Electric power generators, transmitters and distributors are always preparing for what is about to come, whether it’s a storm tomorrow or a new technology expected to be rolled out over a period of years.

5G wireless technology, of course, is the latter, even though the tone and volume of advertisements for it and articles about it may make it seem like the former. Still, though its effect won't be immediate, it likely will be big.

As its name suggests, 5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology. The first generation used analog technology to enable phone calls. The second was the first digital generation of cellular technology and enabled such things as texting. The third generation boosted download speeds to rates ranging from 200 kilobits per second to 8 megabits per second on the most advanced networks, allowing video calling and web browsing. And the fourth introduced technologies capable of producing maximum download speeds of nearly 680 Mbps in the United States, enabling, among many other things, streaming video.

5G promises to make those speeds look tortoise-like. An analysis conducted last July by mobile analytics company Opensignal found 5G users in the U.S. could obtain maximum download speeds of 1815 Mbps, roughly 2.7 times the speeds available to 4G users. Meanwhile, digital security company Gemalto says 5G will enable speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second, which would be roughly 55 times the maximum 5G speed reported by Open Signal.

5G’s speed eventually also will be much faster than 4G’s speed due to its lower latency, which is the time it takes for a device on a network to respond to a request from another device. The extent to which devices on a network that has the bandwidth to enable a download speed of 1 gigabit per second are going to be able to reach that speed depends on the network’s latency.

The average latency of 4G networks is around 50 milliseconds. Nokia has achieved latencies between 1 millisecond and 2 milliseconds in tests of its network.

Finally, 5G networks are likely to have greater capacity than their 4G predecessors. Wireless technology producer Qualcomm says 5G networks will have four times the capacity of 4G ones due to wider bandwidths and advanced antenna technologies.

The wider bandwidths are available in mid-band 5G, which uses frequencies in the 1-10 GHz range, and especially in high-band 5G, which uses frequencies in the 20-100 GHz range. Low-band 5G, which uses frequencies below 1 GHz, pretty much behaves like 4G at the moment, in part because 4G networks use it, limiting the number of channels available to 5G network operators.

The country’s major wireless carriers — Verizon Wireless, AT&T Wireless, and Sprint and T-Mobile, which are hoping to combine — have begun rolling out 5G service, but the roll out is experiencing some hiccups.

One problem is equipment. No U.S. company makes the equipment used in 5G networks and the Trump administration has voiced cyber-security concerns about the equipment made by China-based Huawei, even though it’s cheaper than equipment made by European manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson.

Another problem is concerns over the frequencies some high-band 5G technology uses. Atmospheric water vapor emits faint signals at 23.6 to 24 GHz, which are picked up by passive microwave sensors on weather satellites and used in weather forecasts. As a result, meteorologists are worried that widespread 5G deployment may hinder their ability to make accurate forecasts, which are important to the electric power industry.

Despite those potential roadblocks, forecasters expect the 5G rollout to continue apace. The GSM Association forecasts that half of all wireless connections in the United States will be 5G by 2025 and that number excludes licensed cellular internet of things connections.

That gives the electric power industry and others time to figure out how they want to use the technology, especially as most 5G phones are able to use 4G technology and probably will be for a while.

The change to 5G “doesn’t happen overnight,” said Jeff Kagan, a longtime telecommunications analyst. “It happens bit by bit over the course of years.”

One of the challenges facing the companies seeking to build and operate 5G networks may end up benefiting electric distribution utilities. High-band 5G has a short transmission range, so effectively deploying it will require building lots of cells. Utility poles are great places to house those cells, which is why Georgia Power has launched a program that uses software developed by a company called Varasset to make it easier for wireless telecommunications providers to put their equipment on its poles.

Despite that, Georgia Power and its parent, Southern Co., are involved in a battle at the Federal Communications Commission with the industry groups representing telecom and cell tower companies over placing equipment on streetlight poles.

Southern and other utilities are arguing that, unlike poles that house electrical distribution equipment, many poles that only house streetlights aren’t strong enough to also cellular equipment. The telecom and tower groups say that utilities are only interested in charging top dollar for their pole space and want the FCC to make the process of 5G cell deployment cheaper and easier for telecom and tower companies.

Providing pole space for equipment isn't the only way the electric power industry may be able to make money off the 5G roll out. Electric distribution utilities “may be able to provide … power supplies and backhaul capacity [for 5G equipment] more cost effectively in many areas than alternative operators,” according to a report the Utilities Technology Council published last March.

“Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and Its Potential Impacts on Electric Utilities” also said that potential applications for 5G in the electric power industry include using it to transmit information from drones inspecting power lines in the course of routine operations or after storms, and enabling maintenance and repair workers to use virtual or augmented reality technologies.

Electric utilities will find 5G technologies so useful that they will want to acquire “spectrum in order to have the option to construct their own private 5G networks,” the report concluded. Those networks, it said, would give utilities redundant telecommunications provision; provide coverage in places not served well or at all by commercial networks, such as rural areas and tunnels; guarantee low latencies; be more likely to operate when public networks are down due to blackouts; and offer greater security than commercial networks. 

5G also has the potential to increase the benefits that utilities can realize from advanced metering infrastructure; make it easier for utility and transmission company field workers to use mapping and other applications that use lots of data; and boost real-time monitoring from sensors on all types of equipment used by power generators, transmitters and distributors.

“It’s going to transform industry after industry over the next decade or more,” Kagan said.


Ben Ettlinger's picture
Ben Ettlinger on Feb 12, 2020

Thanks for the post.

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Feb 13, 2020

You're welcome. It was fun to do and touched on a lot of topics that I imagine I'll explore individually down the road.

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