We often get asked why a utility needs a private broadband network, fully under its own control, to carry the data that feeds its control systems. Importantly—and thankfully—we almost never hear that question from people who run utility telecom systems. And that is because in a modernized “smart” grid, for day-to-day safety and efficiency as well as emergency operations and recovery, utility control systems depend upon the prompt and secure delivery of vast quantities of data generated out in the field. That data doesn’t get to the control system without broadband connectivity, and without that data, operators do not have the situational awareness they need to do their jobs. And without situational awareness, recovery from a service outage is hampered, causing costly delays. So utility broadband connectivity has to be rock-solid.
Utility networks must be utility-grade.
Yes, wireless broadband service is readily available to consumers. But consumer-grade is inadequate for utility mission-critical applications, which require greater security, reliability, and speed (lower latency). Commercial networks provide “best efforts” service; utility operators require faster feedback loops and situational awareness to manage an increasingly complex grid including distributed energy resources and growing electrification demand. Utilities need hardened, utility-grade communications networks so that operators can keep improving efficiency, maintain reliability, and quickly recover from unplanned events. Commercial networks are designed to meet a particular business model focused on serving the mass market; utility networks must be more reliable and more resilient so the utility has grid visibility even when the power is out and commercial communications are down.
Those attributes together dictate that the utility control the network. On commercial networks, traffic competes for shared bandwidth; electric utilities require dedicated bandwidth so that critical control data gets through every time, even when millions of consumers clog commercial networks. This is the very reason Congress provided spectrum and $7 billion to create the FirstNet network for police, fire, and emergency medical agencies: their communications also, are critical and cannot be made to contend with competing traffic for network bandwidth in commercial networks. The justification is similar for utilities—they must control the network to ensure that they have access to the full capacity of the network when they need it.
Utility-grade networks require licensed spectrum.
Perhaps the most visible part of the infrastructure of a wireless broadband network is the cell tower with its familiar panel antennae. In addition to other infrastructure elements, including backhaul transport (both fiber and microwave), the physical equipment that comprises the core network, and end-user devices, wireless broadband networks also require spectrum: a critical input that is more scarce and less tangible than infrastructure but equally essential. Without access to spectrum (radio channels) for the use of the infrastructure and devices, there is no wireless broadband service. It would be like trying to deliver pizzas without access to the roads.
It also matters how the utility gets access to the spectrum. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates spectrum nationwide, allowing some bands to be used by anybody with an FCC-approved device (unlicensed spectrum) and requiring specific FCC permission to use other bands (licensed spectrum). Today, many utilities rely upon legacy narrowband networks that use unlicensed spectrum. Because spectrum bands have finite capacities for carrying data, and unlicensed spectrum is shared among all networks in the vicinity, a utility network using unlicensed spectrum will become capacity constrained when more capacity is taken up by competing networks outside its control. And with non-utility usage of unlicensed spectrum expected to increase fourfold over the next decade, unlicensed spectrum is going to get even more crowded and unreliable.
That’s why utilities need licensed spectrum. A license means that nobody else is allowed to use that band in that geographic area. It also provides a federal legal mechanism for addressing interference from other radio transmissions. A private network using shared, unlicensed spectrum isn’t a private network at all; control of the spectrum is a critical part of controlling the network itself. And for mission-critical utility control systems, nothing else will do.
For more on the spectrum options for private broadband, see The Urgent Need for a Licensed Broadband Spectrum Allocation for Critical Infrastructure from Navigant Research.”