Implementing private wireless networks is still a new concept for electric utilities, even though perhaps no other industry is better positioned to capitalize on their benefits. Energy companies are fundamental to the needs of all US infrastructure and have the most stringent communication network requirements, including the need for low latency, and resilient and secure connectivity.
While WiFi is still the primary form of wireless for utilities, it is not sophisticated or robust enough to manage high volume data traffic and applications; especially for modern facilities that can span three kilometers. There is also a natural inclination for utilities to adopt private networking. They are already frequent customers of public networks and rely on that connectivity for things like vehicles, security cameras and consumer metering.
Private networks are becoming popular at the right time to help utilities modernize their grids, support industrial transformation, and increase their data and connectivity capabilities.
What are the benefits of a private network?
Unlike public networks, private networks are completely owned and operated by the utility, which gives them control over many aspects such as security, reliability, reporting, performance and more. Utilities use their limited bandwidth for so many data-intensive applications such as connected surveillance cameras, metering, data streaming and grid control, making it necessary to prioritize bandwidth for mission-critical applications.
The location of most utilities is another reason they are uniquely suited to invest in private networks. Typically, mobile carriers deploy wireless infrastructure along main roads and densely populated areas of the US. Most utilities are in rural areas or on land intentionally away from towns and cities, which can cause connectivity challenges. Building a private network ensures adequate network coverage where needed, including alongside transmission lines to support IoT. The network core is also closer to the edge which decreases data transmission distances and lowers latency.
Private networks can also be a surprising cost-savings mechanism because they add resilience and mitigate the risk and frequency of utility downtime. Mobile carriers tend to offer standard service level agreements (SLAs) that might not meet the needs of utilities and they don’t reimburse losses from downed service. Electric utilities, in particular, face heavy regulations that can lead to fines or criminal punishment when services go down for a period of time. Private networking helps them control their own destiny in this regard.
How to build a private network?
Private networks require some of the same things as carrier-provisioned networks even though the ownership and management is different. Utilities must invest in shared or unlicensed spectrum, a network core that manages bandwidth allocation and data, and SIM authentication to provide network access for connected devices whether they are phones, IoT endpoints, or equipment.
Utilities may also need to install indoor wireless equipment like a distributed antenna system (DAS) to provide the necessary coverage or capacity. The most common frequency bands used for private networking today include 900MHz, 700MHz and CBRS. CBRS was considered the most popular approach to building private networks initially but the challenges with orchestrating all the necessary components has been cumbersome for carriers and enterprises. In general, it is confusing to understand all the key stakeholders and components involved in the process of building private wireless networks, which is why companies like broadband solution provider Anterix have developed ecosystems to help simplify the process.
As electric utilities strive to further implement advanced technologies to modernize their grid, improve operations, and create a better experience for customers and administrators, private networks are becoming increasingly important. It’s better to start early and build the foundation now so incremental improvements can be made as needed, whether that’s an upgrade to 5G or an expansion to cover more surface area.
Seri Yoon is the Director of Marketing at Advanced RF Technologies Inc. (ADRF), with responsibility for marketing programs, brand management, and public relations. Seri also manages and oversees corporate sponsorships, events, social media campaigns, media relations, marketing training and more. She has more than 16 years of marketing experience in the telecommunications industry. Prior to joining ADRF, she was a Marketing Manager at Commscope and TE Connectivity. Seri holds a BS in Business Administration from Carnegie Mellon University.