Navigant Research Blog

Harder, Better, Faster, and Stronger Communications Networks

Richelle Elberg — December 17, 2015

A few months back I wrote a blog entitled “The Comms Are the Cloud,” where I suggested that utilities intent upon enjoying the full potential of the coming Energy Cloud need to develop more holistic communications strategies—specifically, they’ll need enterprisewide, low latency, high bandwidth networks in order to get there.

This is a tough nut for utilities because over the years innumerable ad hoc, application-specific networks have been deployed. Even relatively new advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) networks were built largely with meter reading in mind, and many of the underlying technologies used stumble when tasked with broader distribution automation applications—and forget about teleprotection.

That needs to change. Globally, AMI penetration is still relatively low. While many utilities are running fiber or setting up microwave links to their second-tier substations, further out in the grid, connectivity is generally comprised of a hodgepodge of incompatible, location or task-specific networks. Most often, if AMI is present, it’s the only network.

The challenges are many. For one, licensed spectrum is not something that very many utilities own—and many don’t care to. Certainly spectrum prices can be high, although Salt River Project (SRP) and a handful of other utilities have recently made the plunge; SRP is planning to put its distribution automation applications on licensed 700 MHz spectrum that it bought for about $0.75/MHz POP, or an estimated $6.5 million. But unlicensed spectrum brings the risk of interference; as the Internet of Things proliferates, that spectrum could get dangerously clogged.

Crossing the Great Divide

Meanwhile, the major telecommunications service providers and infrastructure vendors are moving ahead with the next generation of wireless technology. 5G hasn’t been clearly defined by standards bodies, but Verizon announced back in September that it will be testing its 5G network in 2016 and intends to begin commercial deployment in 2017. It has partnered with communications heavyweights like Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, and others to man its innovation centers and bring the technology to market. Verizon says its 5G network will offer throughput that is 50 times greater than its current 4G LTE network.

But while these telecommunications leaders work toward the next big thing, utilities are largely still reliant upon older communications technologies. There have been some announcements related to 4G-based offerings, and a growing number of utilities are looking to leverage 4G’s low latency. But many utilities are still reluctant to use public carrier networks for their critical applications. Instead they build their own—but is there any utility out there as good as a Verizon or AT&T when it comes building communications networks?

Some large utilities are beginning to reevaluate their communications strategies, but the IT/OT silos that segment utility divisions on so many other fronts are also very much alive when it comes to the communications networks. Retail (AMI) teams don’t want to share their network with the distribution operations folks, and the distribution operations folks may not want to let other applications ride on their distribution automation networks.

At the end of the day there are several points I want to make, and I intend to bring them up again and again in 2016. Utilities need to consider their networking strategy in a holistic manner. Utilities should consider spectrum ownership in their long-term planning. And utilities should reconsider their reluctance to rely upon public networks. Without robust, holistic communications, your utility can’t participate in the Energy Cloud.

Perhaps Daft Punk said it best:  Work it, Harder, Make it, Better, Do it, Faster, Makes Us, Stronger.

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