There has been a sharp increase in the number of enterprises across the world looking to build private mobile broadband networks–2G, 3G, LTE, and 5G–over the past few years. Put simply, this has seen enterprises buy up radio spectrum to provide organizations with the freedom to create dedicated, optimized and easily deployed networks. Demand for private spectrum has been particularly strong from utilities companies across the U.S.
On May 13 of this year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requested that 6 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum in the 900-MHz band be made available for broadband technologies and services. This order was finalized on August 27. Anterix, formerly pdvWireless, owns much of this spectrum and plans to lease it to U.S. utility companies so they can build their own private LTE networks. The move has exciting implications for U.S. power companies.
Why Power Companies Need Private LTE Networks
Owing to the expanse of their operations, most power and other utility companies already own extensive telecommunications network infrastructure that often includes a mix of fiber, copper, microwave, and WiMAX technology. Power companies build their own networks to guarantee reliable connectivity, security, and control. They cannot afford to be limited by restrictions and risks placed on them by commercial carriers. They have to ensure their networks stay up even if the power for public carrier networks has gone down. Often, it doesn't make financial sense for carriers to guarantee network coverage and capacity in remote areas of a power company's operations. In an age of digital transformation and grid modernization, however, power companies are committed to doing whatever it takes to create a robust and resilient connectivity backbone to maintain efficiency and stay competitive in this crowded arena.
Power companies are under increasing pressure to provide a constant real-time view of energy consumption to their customers. This means they are having to run quickly to keep pace with the latest technologies and connected devices. The amount of network bandwidth they require to support them is set to grow rapidly. Despite already owning telecoms networks, both fixed and mobile, much of it is disparate and relatively limited in its ability to scale. Extending the reach of fiber, for example, can be prohibitively expensive. The fact that many utility companies that still rely on WiMAX technology is also problematic given the technology has become increasingly outdated and unsupported leading to inefficiencies and security risks.
The availability of 900-MHz spectrum for private networks is a gamechanger. As a low frequency band, it can deliver extended network coverage and capacity to support applications and services that power companies rely on, across expansive and remote areas. Given its low frequency, utility companies can efficiently leverage 900-MHz spectrum with the minimal number of sites to serve millions of customers inhabiting thousands of square miles. It also provides the opportunity for power companies to consolidate or replace disparate legacy elements into one mobile broadband network. This delivers dramatic reductions in the total cost of ownership versus multiple single-use legacy fixed and mobile networks. It is not uncommon for utilities companies to have dozens of these legacy networks in place, each supporting different services in different areas.
Power Company Use Cases for Private LTE Networks
There are many areas where private LTE networks can drive efficiency for power companies. The first is the ability to improve customer engagement. We live in a world of real-time data usage where consumers want more transparency and empowerment so they can make informed decisions to reduce their energy bills. This includes the rise of smart meters and increased use of demand response programs that reward consumers for easing off power usage during peak times. These innovative services rely on the sharing of mission critical data which, in turn, require reliable connectivity to function. Private LTE delivers this.
Power companies also need to deliver seamless, robust connectivity to their field engineers so they may use a wide variety of digital devices to collect and process data from a large number of different sources. These grid assets can range from smart meters on a customer's premise, to voltage regulators and drones used at their own facilities.
There are also enhanced workforce management and safety procedures that can be effectively supported and carried out to deliver further productivity, efficiency, and comfort. This has been particularly important as utility companies have had to overcome the restrictions that COVID-19 has placed on them. These have placed additional strain on utility workforces that have remained in the field and highlighted new use cases for network automaton, supported by a reliable communications network. Private LTE offers these capabilities.
Possible Enhancements to Network Security
Then there are major enhancements to network security that private LTE networks can offer to power companies. Power companies require definitive control over access to their networks and the applications that run on it. As a licensed wireless technology, LTE has inherent security benefits, but these can be further enhanced by adding dedicated cybersecurity systems on top.
Power companies can, for example, require every device connecting to their network to go through a stringent connection routine and restrict various types of traffic on the network. This is crucial in helping companies guard against malicious attacks and provide network resilience and protection. They can also use the inherent benefits of mobility and use a private LTE network to issue targeted workforce alerts when a power line is down so it can be deactivated before it causes injury or further disaster, such as a wildfire.
In both these instances, time is of the essence. The more immediate the response, in terms of real-time, remote control, and deactivation or alerting remote workers in the field, the more effectively the resulting damage caused by malicious attacks and natural disasters can be contained. Maintaining a stable network when handling disturbances requires rapid response times. Rapid response requires low latency connectivity. Private LTE delivers this.
LTE: A Path to 5G
LTE offers a seamless migration path to 5G, which makes sense given that it is from the same family of technologies. Power companies that deploy private LTE networks will be perfectly placed to upgrade to 5G when the need arises and when the broader grid assets and workforce management ecosystem supports 5G. Indeed, many commercial carriers are hoping for considerable interest from enterprises in working with them to benefit from enterprise 5G services.
So-called, "5G Standalone" core networks will create the opportunity for carriers to offer dedicated network coverage and bandwidth to power companies for the specific provision and support of their own applications–effectively offering private space in a public network. This approach, known as network slicing, has the potential for carriers to provide a better level of service optimization for power companies within the carriers' broader consumer focused networks.
Although a network-sliced service from a traditional carrier can provide convenient access to additional spectrum, dedicated private 5G networks will always be able to deliver enhanced operational benefits. These benefits include the granularity and speed of network control, dynamic reconfiguration, resilience and security, including air-gapping, compared to accessing a slice of a third-party network. It will take several years for traditional carriers to implement network slicing effectively and reliably, and to achieve extensive geographic coverage with 5G. Utility companies don't have to wait for public carriers to reap the substantial benefits of the LTE and 5G global ecosystem. This provides further incentive for power companies to pursue private networks now.
It is for these reasons, along with the need for greater security and control, that most power companies will opt to build their own private 5G networks as an extension to their private LTE infrastructure so they can improve customer satisfaction and business performance today.
Regardless of the capabilities of either generation of the technology, power companies will always want assurances over guaranteed coverage, robust connectivity, flexible and dynamic control, and stringent security that carriers won't be able to deliver.
–Mark Bole is chief executive officer for Quortus, a company that creates agile and feature-rich private wireless networks for enterprises, industry, and government organizations.