The utilities sector is in a state of profound transformation. In keeping with other sectors of the economy, data is the new oil – harvested from an increasingly large network of sensors across the grid and enabling real-time control and monitoring of critical infrastructure through automation and big data analytics.
These enhancements fall under the umbrella term, “smart grid”, which encompasses the sector’s transition to being proactive in dealing with issues such as faults, as opposed to the reactive nature that characterised the past. In addition to reducing operational expenses through new efficiencies, there is an opportunity to unlock new revenue streams with new services.
But none of this transformation is possible without competent connectivity. Private wireless networks, in particular, will play a crucial role in catering to a utility’s mobility-orientated applications in the field, as well as filling the gaps where fixed networks are non-existent while maintaining high levels of security and resilience.
Utilities are mission-critical, and so too is their wireless infrastructure
When considering how a utility may adopt and implement any connectivity technology, it is important to remember the criticality of their role – to generate, transmit and distribute power to homes and businesses. It is obvious that utilities represent a key enabler to the function of both society and the economy in today’s world.
After all, the electricity grid is a highly complex system composed of geographically dispersed equipment built to deliver centrally generated power across a utility’s territory. Underscoring the complexity is the need to monitor and control the grid.
For years, utilities have developed their own private wireless infrastructure to fulfill this very purpose. The word “private” is key because it connotes the fact that the infrastructure is entirely independent and disassociated from the commercial services provided by mobile operators.
This network independence yields significant benefits for utilities and it is founded on the reality that the business model of commercial telecoms operators is not congruent with that of utilities. The best example of this conflict of interest comes to the fore in scenarios where there is a power outage due to a severe weather event.
It is in such an unfavourable scenario as this when it is the most important time for the utility’s wireless infrastructure to be available as switching is performed within the Distribution Automation (DA) system to restore power to as many affected customers as possible.
But commercial mobile operators often deliver services on a “best-effort basis”, meaning there are few service-level agreements (SLAs) that meet the specific requirements of utilities. Furthermore, the impact of telecoms equipment failures can be compounded by congestion due to spikes in voice and data traffic during severe weather events.
Private wireless networks have also suited utilities because they lend complete control over the lifecycle of their equipment. Commercial mobile operators, by contrast, tend to sunset technologies and push upgrades at a much faster pace, forcing utilities to commit to capital intensive migration exercises.
Spectrum Sharing incorporates the benefits of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum
Historically, utilities have deployed wireless infrastructure with licensed spectrum assets. The fundamental thinking behind this strategy was that only licensed spectrum could guarantee high levels of availability (>99.999%), and that unlicensed spectrum would produce interference issues.
Licensed spectrum is, however, akin to gold dust and extremely expensive to obtain in meaningful quantities. This prompted utilities to lease access to the spectrum from license holders such as Anterix. The 900 MHz band, for example, is leased extensively for narrowband land mobile radio systems (LMR) and was recently cleared by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to be used to deliver private LTE.
Spectrum sharing in the form of CBRS is disrupting the traditional model for utilities by enabling cost-effective access to mid-band assets. The forthcoming Priority Access License (PAL) auction presents an opportunity to acquire 70 MHz of spectrum in Tier 2, where users will enjoy precedence over activities in the General Authorised Access (GAA) layer.
A number of utilities already operate wireless networks in the 3.65 GHz (3650-3700 MHz) portion of the CBRS band for deployments of WiMAX. Transition activities are ongoing to comply with the FCC’s Part 96 CBRS rules.
The CBRS Band enables cost efficiencies and revenue enhancement
Importantly, the CBRS band provides orders of magnitude more capacity than that available in low-band spectrum, which has been mostly limited to predictive maintenance and fault protection systems. This makes the band an ideal medium for utilities to develop private LTE networks (with 3GPP Band 48) that serve higher bitrate traffic applications.
Remote monitoring with cameras is a key use case for the band, exploiting the large amount of bandwidth available to investigate problems in power plants and oil and gas refineries. This negates the need to suspend operations when a person is used to diagnose the issue. Other use cases include gunshot detection devices, parking monitoring, street lighting, transmission tower lights and environmental conditions monitoring.
As a cellular technology, private LTE networks in the CBRS band are suited to applications which are both static and mobile in nature, unlike other technologies such as Wi-Fi. In the field, mobility-focused applications including hardened tablets, two-way radios and vehicle tracking could support maintenance crews.
Static applications, on the other hand, could take advantage of the CBRS band as a medium for low latency backhaul to complement existing fibre and microwave links. This may serve supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, distribution automation (DA), advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and distributed energy resources (DERs).
Private LTE with CBRS may also enable significant cost efficiencies for utilities by reducing the number of disparate wireless networks that need to be managed. At present, some utilities are managing more than two dozen separate systems for multiple wireless networks and many are approaching obsolescence.
In parallel to unlocking cost efficiencies, private LTE can also pave the way for the generation of new revenue streams. There is an opportunity to leverage the existing customer base to upsell new services such as wireless broadband and to provide customers with enhanced insights into energy usage with smart metering.
The prospect of a utility company deploying, operating and selling broadband in the CBRS band is a major development and one that could reduce the digital divide by expanding Internet access to some of the most rural and underserved communities in America. For the utility, it could also improve customer retention.
Newport Utilities, for example, has started to build a Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) network in the CBRS band across rural Tennessee. This overcomes the reality that, in many locations, fixed fibre networks are not commercially viable due to geographic challenges or sheer economics.
Conclusion: Wireless infrastructure is becoming a “third grid” for utilities
The CBRS band, by democratising access to shared mid-band spectrum, can deliver on the need for private wireless networks that exhibit large capacity, low latency and high reliability. Beyond enabling cost efficiencies and revenue enhancement, it provides real value for utilities with targeted applications and use cases.
The band advances the evolution from kilobit per second (Kbps) data services to the current demand for wide-area wireless coverage supporting a combination of voice, video and data services ranging in capacity from megabit per second (Mbps) to multi gigabit per second (Gbps).
Once viewed as a necessary cost (and burden) of doing business, wireless infrastructure is quickly becoming a key strategic asset for utilities.