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Let's Collaborate on Grid Communications

June 10, 2021
Private LTE's value to utilities is multiplied if the industry collaborates to adopt it broadly.

Utilities have a strong collaborative tradition, a culture of sharing best practices — and today that tradition offers the chance to realize a goal we as an industry have pursued for over a decade. We must migrate from our outdated communications networks to far more capable, secure, and robust 21st century systems necessary to enable grid modernization. I served on the front lines of efforts to address this issue and fully appreciate the need for prompt, industry-wide resolution.

Eight years ago, when I served as co-chair of the Edison Electric Institute’s CIO Executive Advisory Committee (at the tail end of 17 years as senior vice president and CIO at Edison International), this issue was already one of the two top priorities for us, along with cybersecurity. We knew we needed secure, wireless broadband networks to connect the rapidly proliferating sensors and devices used by new grid management applications and to phase out our many old, single-purpose, narrowband legacy networks. But wireless networks require spectrum, and there was a long-standing shortage of spectrum available for utility broadband networks. During my time with the Advisory Committee — and well before and after — the industry aggressively advocated for government action on spectrum so we could build the private broadband networks we need.

In May 2020, our efforts finally paid off. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed its regulation of the 900-MHz band to accommodate broadband services. Anterix, the company that holds the vast majority of spectrum in that band, is offering it to our industry. Utilities nationwide now have access to licensed broadband spectrum perfect for our needs. We have long sought an opportunity like this, and now that it is here we need to take advantage as an industry. And I am pleased to be a member of the Anterix board of directors at such a pivotal time for broadband spectrum.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this effort. Driven by the inexorable growth of renewables and other distributed energy resources (DERs), utilities are racing to modernize their grids to fully integrate the two-way, intermittent flow of power from externally controlled sources. Modernization requires new applications to monitor and control the grid based on real-time data. The data must be transmitted immediately from the remote sensor that creates it to the application for analysis and action — perhaps in the form of an automatic command to a remote smart device to execute a physical task. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for integrating DERs, but every utility will require an underlying broadband communications platform to transmit the data that is the lifeblood of that strategy.

Today, utilities struggle to maintain sometimes 10 or even 20 legacy narrowband networks; often they are proprietary and support only a single application. These old networks, built before cybersecurity became the essential focus it is today, are frequently nearing or past end-of-life with dwindling vendor support. Maintaining them is burdensome, costly, and as the workforce familiar with the legacy networks edges into retirement, it is increasingly risky. Southern California Edison — my former employer — explained it well to the FCC: "The telecommunications methods, equipment, and networks of the 20th century are no longer up to the task of meeting 21st century climate conditions and security threats, not to mention the increasing complexity of administering the interconnected grids that make up the nation’s electrical infrastructure."

We utility CIOs know the importance and urgency of migrating to a modern private broadband platform to securely integrate the coming wave of DERs. But I also serve on a utility’s board of directors (NorthWestern Energy) and I know the issue is also squarely on the radar at that level as a priority matter of corporate strategy. The pressing need, the finite window of opportunity, and the heightened awareness of utility leadership are all aligned for prompt action to build the modern networks we need.

These networks will employ a wireless broadband technology with proven performance to meet utility use cases requiring ultra-low latency and traffic prioritization. They will be entirely controlled by the utility, including spectrum, network design, network infrastructure, user devices, operations, and maintenance. And finally, they will include advanced cybersecurity features based on the utility’s own assessment of its cyber requirements and its operational tolerances.

Though Anterix doesn’t offer the only solution, it does meet all of the above criteria with some clear benefits. The 900-MHz spectrum Anterix provides to utilities is perfect for LTE, the leading cellular technology worldwide with a clear, defined evolution to 5G. Anterix’s LTE solution is installed in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s testbed, where its performance and ability to support utility use cases are being validated, and NIST’s National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence has made it part of the reference architecture for its Cybersecurity for Distributed Energy Resources Project. Importantly, the Anterix LTE solution is private, giving the utility free reign to decide where to build coverage, what cybersecurity measures to implement, what traffic to prioritize, and when to schedule system maintenance. Finally, Anterix’s low-band spectrum requires fewer towers than higher-band spectrum for comparable LTE coverage, resulting in substantial savings in total cost of ownership.

I believe private LTE’s value to utilities is multiplied if the industry collaborates to adopt it broadly. Utilities will be able to leverage it during mutual assistance periods, which have been occurring frequently, and to share technical and operational know-how (as well as the expert staff possessing that knowledge), aggregate scale to improve buying efficiency and drive innovation, and boost the utility 900-MHz LTE ecosystem.

From my long experience in the industry, it is clear to me that utilities must embrace the culture of collaboration to take advantage of this rare opportunity to solve the grid communications challenge. To my fellow CIOs, always a thoughtful group — you don’t need to jump in all at once. Start with a pilot, select from among your most pressing use cases. Anterix can help you get started and find your path. Through groups like the EEI CIO Executive Advisory Committee and the Utility Broadband Alliance, you can talk with the many others in the industry who are considering or have recently made the same decision.

And to my fellow utility board members, focused on those big strategy issues like integrating renewables and cybersecurity — you don’t need to know about the propagation characteristics of a 900-MHz spectrum, but you do need to know that there is now, finally, a solution for your utility to deploy the kind of communications platform it needs to support your strategy for those big-ticket issues. Now, we, as an industry, need to implement that solution together.

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