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Utility tests and deployments of private LTE networks picking up speed

image credit: © New York Power Authority

Like the explosions of individual kernels in a popcorn popper after it’s been plugged in for a couple of minutes, announcements that utilities are testing or deploying private wireless broadband networks are beginning to happen more rapidly.

So far this year, there have been three — two involving private Long-Term Evolution networks that San Diego Gas & Electric and Xcel Energy plan to roll out and a third about a private LTE network that Dominion Energy’s Virginia subsidiary plans to test over the next two years.

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They follow an announcement last month that the New York Power Authority had demonstrated that a private LTE network could be used to control and get images from drones being used to inspect power lines.

SDG&E is using broadband spectrum it acquired in the auction of Citizens Band Radio Service bandwidth that the Federal Communications Commission conducted last year. Xcel, Dominion and the NYPA are leasing spectrum in the 900 megahertz band from Anterix for their private LTE networks. Anterix describes itself “as the largest holder of licensed spectrum in the 900 MHz band, with nationwide coverage throughout the contiguous United States, Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.” A Fierce Wireless article last year said Anterix was working with more than 40 utilities and industrial companies on developing the architecture for private LTE networks. One of those companies, Ameren, in December signed agreements to lease 900 Mhz spectrum from Anterix for use in its Missouri and Illinois service territories, according to an Energy Central post by Llewellyn King. Xcel, NYPA and Ameren are among the seven utility members of the Utility Broadband Alliance, which promotes the advancement and development of private broadband networks for America’s critical infrastructure industries.

Although SDG&E’s deployment of a private LTE network goes beyond being a trial of the technology, it’s still limited, according to an article by Martha DeGrasse for Fierce Wireless. The article says the Sempra Energy subsidiary plans to evaluate the performance of the initial sites where it’s setting up the network before rolling the network out on a larger scale.

SDG&E plans to use its private LTE network in multiple ways, including for metering, faulted circuit indication, mission critical push-to-talk, and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). It also plans to use the network to expand its Falling Conductor Protection System, which uses low-latency communications to detect a power line that has failed and de-energize it before it comes in contact with the ground.

“We also see this system helping us more effectively serve the growing renewable power and energy storage systems connected to our grid, as well as meeting growing demands for electric vehicle charging and other new loads,” said Omar Zevallos, SDG&E’s manager of network technologies.

Xcel Energy plans to deploy its private LTE network at two sites in Minnesota where it will help the utility respond more quickly to local outages, support advanced metering infrastructure and provide cyber protection for critical infrastructure, according to an Energy Central post by DW Keefer. Xcel could eventually use the network to support automated technology.

The deployment comes a little less than four months after Mike Dano of Light Reading reported that Xcel was testing a private LTE network. In its filing with the Federal Communications Commission asking for permission to test the network, Xcel said it was “exploring the use of 900MHz LTE networks for various applications in support of its affiliates' electric and gas utility operations." Those applications, Xcel said, included AMI backhaul, SCADA, distribution automation and the expansion of the push-to-talk capabilities provided by its existing land mobile radio (LMR) network.

Xcel’s test and subsequent deployment of a private LTE network comes after the company decided in 2019 to shut down its private WiMax network. An Xcel spokeswoman told Light Reading that her company made that move in response to FCC regulations and was transitioning from its private WiMax network to public LTE networks. Xcel’s deployment of a private LTE network would seem to mean the company intends to shift some of the traffic it’s now putting on public LTE networks to private LTE.

Dominion’s Virginia subsidiary recently received permission from the FCC to test a private LTE network, which it plans to do over two years in both a rural and an urban location.

The utility plans to use the rural test to see if it can use the network to provide its workers with mobile voice and data communications, as well as telemetry and automation, and backhaul and communications redundancy for substations, according to a DW Keefer post for Energy Central. The company also wants to find out if the networks can meet the operating constraints of the National Radio Quiet Zone that covers 13,000 square miles in Virginia and West Virginia to minimize possible harmful interference to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia and the radio receiving facilities for the United States Navy in Sugar Grove, West Virginia.

The urban test is meant to allow Dominion to evaluate the network as a source of redundant voice and data connectivity, particularly in case of an electro-magnetic pulse attack, and its immunity to noise interference. Other utilities may be testing LTE networks to see if they can provide connectivity in case of electro-magnetic pulse attacks, but few have said so.

The NYPA’s demonstration that an LTE network could be used to control and get images from drones being used to inspect power lines, which is pictured above, also was written about by DW Keefer in an Energy Central post. As Keefer wrote, the demonstration was part of a pilot of LTE wireless technology that Nokia has been conducting for the NYPA at its Blenheim-Gilboa Pumped Storage Power Project in Schoharie County.

“The ultimate goal of this project is to leverage all the benefits of the ever-evolving innovation in wireless technology, and this is an exciting first step,” said Gil C. Quiniones, NYPA’s president and CEO. “The pilot program to install Private LTE Wireless technology across our generation and transmission network is integral to NYPA’s transition to becoming an end-to-end digital utility so it is extremely gratifying to see the progress of this drone test.”

In addition to the tests in the 900 MHz spectrum supplied by Anterix, NYPA is also planning to trial private LTE with Nokia in 600 MHz spectrum supplied by Omega Wireless and with AT&T in 700 MHz (FirstNet) spectrum in Schoharie County, according to a Fierce Wireless report by Martha DeGrasse.

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