By Robert Schwartz, Anterix
The electric utility business is fundamentally more complex today than it was even five years ago. Once primarily the distributor of centrally produced power, the utility is now the master orchestrator of a multitude of transformative distributed energy resources—such as solar, wind, and battery storage —even as it now needs to actively defend against cyber threats and more frequent natural disasters. Enabling this modern electric grid requires a solid foundation of secure and reliable communications, which numerous utilities have determined will be served by a private wireless broadband communications network, made possible by wireless infrastructure.
Utilities rely upon data from devices throughout their systems to maintain reliable customer service and ensure the security and efficiency of operations. According to Navigant Research, electric utilities will increase the number of connected data-creating devices by more than a factor of eight in the next decade, and the amount of data each device generates will also grow. Though much of the focus in grid modernization efforts is on the fixed sensors and intelligent devices that create the data and applications that act on the data, underlying all of it is the communications network that carries the data.
The modernized grid requires wireless broadband communications
The electric utility industry is changing, evolving from centralized generation and distribution to a more efficient and resilient distributed model. Data connectivity is the nerve system that makes this coordinated, interactive approach possible, but today’s amalgam of disparate narrowband, single purpose private? wireless networks — many of which are nearing end of life — is too inefficient, insecure, and capacity-constrained to support tomorrow’s modernized grid needs.
Navigant Research explains that though utilities have deployed a variety of wireless networks to support specific applications, “the economics of maintaining dozens of limited purpose networks — and the staff to support them — will become impossible to justify,” and “reliance upon a vast array of incompatible networks … is inefficient and will ultimately become unmanageable.” To modernize, a utility will need an efficient, secure, scalable, broadband communications platform that it controls, allowing it to re-use and expand upon existing wireless infrastructure even as it phases out the complex collection of limited-purpose networks upon which it currently relies.
Fiber connectivity is a critical component of utility communications systems, providing both robust backhaul for wireless systems as well as secure transport for data that never touches a wireless system at all. They are complementary broadband systems, each bringing important strengths: private wireless provides a scalable, flexible, cost-effective way to securely connect tens of thousands of devices; fiber provides robust, secure, high-capacity connectivity for critical data.
Utility-grade broadband requires private networks.
Mission-critical applications require security, reliability, and guaranteed speed (low latency). Utility networks must be hardened to prevent compromise by human actors and natural disasters, reliable so they work even under emergency conditions, and resilient to quickly recover from setbacks and support power restoration efforts. Utilities require dedicated bandwidth so that critical grid communications can get through every time, without contention for bandwidth from users outside the utility’s control. Private networks offer all of these critical benefits.
Utilities are constantly on the lookout for ways to reduce their vulnerabilities to cyberattack, and a private network on a utility’s private, hardened infrastructure can help limit that exposure. By implementing a closed, purpose-built network separated from the public Internet and by phasing out diverse, hard-to-manage deployments of outdated network technologies in favor of a consolidated, modern broadband system, utilities can reduce the attack surface and improve their cyber security posture.
Wireless broadband networks will require spectrum, technology, and additional infrastructure
As utilities deploy smart devices farther afield, they will need to install additional infrastructure to provide network coverage to reach those devices. Those infrastructure elements include towers, antennae, backhaul transport (both fiber and microwave), the physical equipment that comprises the core network, and end-point devices (including connected sensors).
In addition to infrastructure, wireless broadband networks also require spectrum, but not all spectrum is the same: the usage requirements imposed by regulators (whether it is licensed only to the network operator or available to any/all users, like most Wi-Fi systems) can determine its availability for critical communications during an emergency. Exclusive licensed spectrum provides legal access to the spectrum’s full capacity, free from competing uses. The 900 MHz band is licensed spectrum — and the federal government has proposed making it available for broadband nationwide.
The network’s ability to meet a utility’s performance requirements is determined by the technology embedded in the network infrastructure that makes use of the spectrum. For example, the time required for sensor data to reach a control system on the grid (latency) can make the difference between successful mitigation and a catastrophic event. Among mature mobile wireless broadband technologies, the most advanced — and the one that supports the lowest latency — is LTE, the same technology already proven in critical infrastructure deployments worldwide. LTE brings with it a range of other important benefits, including a vast ecosystem of products already available for use in the 900 MHz band, scalability, and a roadmap for ongoing technical evolution.
Utilities must prioritize the communications platform as the critical strategic asset it has become
In the past, utilities treated communications networks as a necessary cost of doing business. Those days are gone. The inexorable march of utility modernization necessitates a communications network that is a foundational element in providing safe and reliable service to customers, today and in the future. As an increasingly complex grid relies ever more upon data, the communications network becomes one of the utility’s primary strategic assets.
By understanding, welcoming, and addressing the growing and unique needs of utilities and other critical infrastructure industries for private networks, wireless infrastructure providers will serve new tenants on their towers and sites.
Robert Schwartz is Anterix’s President and Chief Operating Officer. Anterix is focused on enabling utilities and critical infrastructure companies to build resilient and secure private broadband networks. Rob has been in the wireless sector for over 25 years, having served in executive leadership roles in numerous wireless carrier and infrastructure companies, including fiber, spectrum, and cell tower providers. He can be followed on Twitter @robschwrtz.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WIA or its members.