Here we are in November once more. I love this month with its cooler temperatures, which is a plus for desert dwellers. Mostly I’m excited that this is the month of tech-toy madness. It used to be called Black Friday with stories slashing their prices to get shoppers in a feeding frenzy. E-commerce changed all that, but the brick and mortar stores have gotten into the fray. Now it seems that the entire month is set aside for price cutting. The big decision is when to jump into the water and grab the desired tech-toy.
My smartphone is over two years old and there have been several generations of technological upgrades since I bought it. To make matters worse, it is a 4G phone, and now all of the carriers are shouting about their latest and greatest 5G network technology. According to the carriers, it is the greatest advancement in communications that I can’t live without.
The hype says 5G is 10 times faster than what I have and with upgrades could eventually be 100 times faster. This 5G technology offers some great benefits. It will have more bandwidth, which means it can handle more connected devices. No more spotty service in crowded areas. Faster connections to the server (i.e., no wait times). It can even connect to cloud platforms faster and easier, but there is a catch.
This next generation cell technology uses millimeter-wave operating bands, wider channel bandwidths, and active antenna arrays to make it work. That is a lot of totally new infrastructure. There are also other tasks needing to be addressed before the carriers can deliver the kind of coverage customers expect and that is going to take time. Until it happens, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the 4G/LTE and the new 5G for most of us.
As one 5G guru put it, the 5G looks good on paper, but it reality doesn’t match the hype yet. In other words, there isn’t the installed infrastructure to support the new 5G smartphones. All the reviews say the fast 5G service depends on you living or working near a 5G hotspot. Otherwise, these speedy devices operate in the 4G and LTE ranges, and will stay that way until the carries expand.
That got me thinking about our electric grid. I have read a lot about the smart grid’s dependence on communication systems. Recently I have seen many references to the 5G technology being incorporated into the latest grid platforms. After some web searching and reading a great many papers and reports, I had a headache, but I did get a better understanding of the issues.
What About the Smart Grid
The grid needs state-of-the-art two way communications because that is the way data and electricity flows. You might say the grid communication devices need sophisticated communication systems that can handle whatever is thrown at them. There isn’t a one size fits all solution when it comes to picking the communications solution.
My area of engineering expertise is power electronics, but I always had access to communications specialists for the heavy-lifting. With that in mind I had a chat with a colleague, Michael Dulaney. Michael is the head of the Global Performance Center, Wireless at Hitachi ABB Power Grids.
Without getting into a lot of theory and details, Dulaney explained there are a lot of different communication architectures in use, and it is not unusual to find several different types of communication systems being used by different parts of the enterprise. He said, “These schemes can vary greatly such as public and/or private cell networks, broadband mesh networks, and others. Silo systems are costly and a problem when it comes to new technologies.”
Dulaney pointed out, “Communication systems have to be able to adapt to what the future brings. A system that is designed to be expandable and is modular is one of the best choices. That type of system minimizes the trauma and expense of upgrading. It’s better not to be frozen until 5G comes along, and systems that have optionality and flexibility can be adapted better for the future.”
All of this discussion has given me a different perspective of our smarter grid’s communication systems. Dealing with legacy equipment in this changing technological world is challenging, but sitting on the sidelines isn’t a choice. The smarter grid needs cutting-edge technology, and systems designed for technological flexibility are better than taking a wait-and-see approach.