By Tim Sill, VP Technology, Alpha Wireless
This article was originally published on energycentral.com
Many of today’s utilities are dealing with aging communications infrastructure at the very same time when they most need advanced technology to enable real-time monitoring, intelligent analytics, improved security and sustainability. How can a smarter network help them realize digital transformation for true grid modernization?
Much like the fossil fuels of yesterday, big data is a key driver of today’s economic growth. As utilities increasingly rely on real-time data, digital transformation becomes paramount. Modern utilities require more secure and reliable communications systems to facilitate data management, implement real-time monitoring, leverage intelligent analytics, and enable automated systems for improved safety, security and sustainability, as well as increased profitability.
Upgraded network infrastructure empowers utilities to take advantage of digital transformation and realize true grid modernization based on automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technology. This not only enables more efficient and effective utility operations, such as active control of energy distribution systems and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), but also provides tools to better face growing challenges such as cyber security, regulatory compliance, natural weather disasters and the need to decarbonize the energy supply chain while addressing rising global energy demands.
However, all of these digital transformation advancements require a reliable network that can securely deliver scalable broadband connectivity to a wide range of different devices across varied landscapes.
Open up to Opportunity
Due to the traditionally risk-averse nature of many utilities, it may seem like a wise idea to delay a communications system upgrade and reduce near-term capital expenditures. Yet, there are a number of inherent risks to postponing network modernization. As legacy infrastructure continues to age, utilities find themselves unable to adapt to changing needs, often leading to compromised security, lack of regulatory compliance, inability to prepare and respond to natural disasters, and diminishing return on investment (ROI).
On the other hand, investing in a modern digital infrastructure today generates valuable opportunities that enable utilities to better prepare for tomorrow. For example, by building out their own private LTE network, utilities can unify existing communications networks to significantly improve flexibility, scalability and control, while also increasing coverage and bandwidth for advanced applications like AMI technology, line monitoring and utilization, internet of things (IoT), and remote worker connectivity.
Utility-grade private LTE networks are similar to public networks, but they can be tailored to the specific needs and budgets of the utility. The use of fixed wireless technology to deliver secure, private LTE broadband connectivity enables high bandwidth, low latency and improved performance capabilities with reduced operating expenses. Offering a combination of data privacy, security, flexibility, scalable capacity, open standards, quality of service (QoS) and low latency, private networks are ideally suited to the mission-critical nature of the utility industry.
Specific use cases of particular interest to many electric utilities include the capability to leverage AI and smart grid technologies for both critical and non-critical system operations; improve efficiencies with grid automation; consolidate and simplify use of land mobile radios (LMRs) for mission-critical communications and worker safety; and provide access to other infrastructure industries such as water and gas utilities. Plus, digital transformation also enables utilities and cooperatives to offer essential broadband services to better serve customers in underserved and rural communities.
Set the Stage for Success
When planning a new network deployment, the first step is to develop a strategic communications roadmap and identify an engaged sponsor to spearhead new initiatives. This helps ensure a solid foundation that includes the technologies and capabilities needed to make the most of all the opportunities that digital transformation can provide well into the future. Planning for a private LTE network deployment allows utilities to define application-specific QoS parameters, as well as implement security protocols to protect against growing ransomware threats and cyber-attacks.
However, LTE network deployment can introduce specific challenges requiring wireless technology expertise. For example, surrounding geography and features, competing signals, buildings and even signals from a utility’s own network can impact network performance. Fortunately, these issues can be easily overcome with the help of an expert RF design partner.
Moreover, an experienced deployment partner can help streamline network completion by identifying potential zoning and concealment issues that could delay site permit approvals. Careful engineering planning at the outset goes a long way toward avoiding expensive project holdups, as well as establishing the carrier-grade performance needed to digitize and modernize network infrastructure.
Collaboration with a wireless industry leader, such as Alpha Wireless, not only provides utilities the products they need to build out a high-performance fixed wireless network, but also allows them to proceed with confidence based on the partner’s planning and deployment expertise. Alpha Wireless works closely with utilities to provide high-gain antennas operating in the frequency bands best suited to private utility networks, including the 900 MHz band and 3.5 GHz / Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum.
An innovator in advanced antenna solutions, Alpha Wireless has invented a patent-pending Frequency Transparent Dipole Technology™ (FTDT) designed specifically to address the needs of multi-frequency private utility networks. With an ultra-compact, high-efficiency design using FTDT, the Alpha Wireless AW3874 and AW3925 solutions deliver high-performance signals in both 900 MHz and CBRS frequency ranges through a single, compact antenna, allowing utilities to use one antenna to deliver multiple applications with a high degree of reliability for the lowest possible total cost of ownership.
With access to a combination of CBRS and 900 MHz broadband spectrum, utilities can quickly build out a unified network to enable AMI systems; provide wireless coverage for their field service personnel and the proliferation of Distributed Energy Resources (DER); and implement active monitoring of network infrastructure, such as substations, remote facilities and generators. By utilizing globally adopted and managed standards, like LTE and 5G, utilities can minimize infrastructure costs over the long-term for faster ROI.
The typical network deployment for many utilities encompasses a variety of disparate technologies — whether due to mergers and acquisitions, changing customer needs, or legacy systems installed to manage different aspects of the utilities infrastructure including voice communications, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), AMI equipment and backhaul. As these networks near end-of-life, they can no longer deliver the resiliency, flexibility, security and reliability that is required for mission-critical operations.
For the modern utility or electric cooperative with an aging communications system, doing nothing is no longer an option. Digital transformation initiatives are vital to shape a new technology landscape for smarter and more secure communications, allowing tomorrow’s digital utility to continue to provide reliable services and value-added customer benefits into the future. To learn more, visit: alphawireless.com/utility-network-solutions.
Tim Sill, VP of Technology at Alpha Wireless, has 25+ years of experience in the wireless industry. Throughout Tim’s career, he has professionally consulted, developed, and innovated telecommunication solutions such as the first Femtocell product, the Concealed Antenna Node (CAN), and OTT applications.