Communications Tower

Should 5G be Part of Your Electric Utility’s Future?

March 10, 2020
5G technology may deliver considerable value to utilities, but realizing these benefits is dependent on 5G system rollout status and strategy in your area

Planning for the future at a utility is not for the faint of heart. Even the most informed planners secretly fear an unanticipated blow-out of fundamental aspects of the utility business model at some point. Many experts agree that connectivity in this rapidly changing business environment will be critical for reacting to shifting market dynamics. Are electric utilities putting adequate thought into their long-term networking plans? Should the default be 5G, a private network or something else? Further, should utilities be viewing 5G as a business opportunity with mobile network operators?

Do you recall the huge mobile phone handsets that appeared in the 1980s or the mega two-way radio-like mobile phones first installed in cars (see early mobile phones here)? These were representative of 1G or first-generation mobile technology at its best. Today, as we know, 5G networks are in the early stages of commercialization. A few telcos are even claiming they have achieved nationwide coverage with 5G. Fifth generation cellular technology is expected to be far superior to the 4G long term evolution (LTE) technology broadly used today.

5G technology may deliver considerable value to utility mobile communications applications: faster speed, greater capacity, lower latency, lower distortion and lower energy cost. However, realizing such improvements over existing technology, 4G LTE in particular, is dependent on 5G system rollout status and strategy in your area (read more here).

The reason is the full 5G capabilities require a new air interface (radio frequency), which makes use of the high band spectrum (>6GHz) sometimes referred to as mm Wave. Some mobile operators are making use of underused low- and medium-band spectrum to roll out 5G and others are building out new networks directly. 5G NR (New Radio) will require substantially more cells to realize the speed and bandwidth advantages of millimeter waves. All U.S. mobile operators are conducting staged implementation and may continue to use 4G with 5G for years.

Is now the time for electric utilities to adopt 5G? U.S. mobile operators are generally focused on the telecom strategy that will help them gain market share and pay for massive investments in 5G as rapidly as possible. Recognized 5G use cases include fixed wireless, enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine-type communications (MMTC) and ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC). The emphasis for some years may be fixed wireless and enhanced mobile broadband, the most consumer-oriented applications. MMTC relates to IOT applications, including high density usage such as meters in urban environments. URLLC covers emerging applications ranging from self-driving cars and remote surgery to smart grid applications. MMTC and URLLC are more dependent on high band spectrum network deployment and may take longer.

If your company has not yet jumped on board with 5G, it is certainly not too late. Early adopters will likely help pay the hefty costs required to develop 5G. Moreover, utilities already invested in 4G systems or fiber may see few incremental benefits near term by switching to 5G. Some experts argue 4G LTE and LTE IoT provide very good coverage and the ability to add low cost network connections. Another “today and tomorrow” strategy may be to install systems that support multiple cellular technologies ranging from 3G to 5G as network coverage becomes available. Multimode is a means for utilities to future-proof their systems for several technology generations.

Aside from the decision to upgrade enterprise communications to 5G, utilities also must decide if they want to take part in the business. U.S. mobile operators will require more than 1 million new cell locations to deploy 5G across the country. Electric utility poles and other infrastructure locations would be excellent candidate sites for the next generation of transmitters. In addition, utilities with extensive fiber optic systems may find a lucrative use for their excess capacity in meeting the significant additional backhaul requirements expected for 5G use cases.

Experts predict there will be 175 million public 5G mobile connections, excluding cellular IoT, by 2025.  However, electric utilities do not necessarily have to be on that bandwagon. As mentioned, some utilities have chosen fiber for their communication needs and private wireless networks also have been deployed where 3G/4G service has been inadequate. Capacity, speed, reliability, latency, security and cost are all considerations as well as how these attributes may change over time when public networks or unlicensed spectrum are involved. Some advocates predict 5G technology will become indispensable to electric utilities as its full capabilities are realized. Whether drafting a system networking plan or evaluating options for replacing a handful of retiring leased wire lines, utility planners have more options to help ensure their operations meet the communications requirements of the future. 

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