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Carrier Networking Service Provider Mobility (4G/5G)
12 minute read

Using Private Cellular Networks to Modernize the Grid and Drive the Future of Utility Reliability

The utility industry has seen minimal foundational changes to operations, business models and competitive landscapes over the last century. But that narrative is changing as various dynamics shape the future of the industry.

In This Article

Digital transformation in the utility industry is creating a tidal wave of data that, if harnessed, can lead to a more reliable, resilient and efficient grid. But too often that data is stranded in the field — not able to connect with the core and rendered useless — because of bottlenecks created by outdated infrastructure.

Think of the grid as a digital nervous system, with sensors in the field (acting as receptors) creating data that needs to be processed into insights and actions by analysis (cognition). Between those sensors and the core sits networks (nerves) that connect the two.

Think of the grid as a digital nervous system.

Today, utilities use a variety of network solutions to serve various point solutions. But as the industry makes its inevitable transition toward digitization, those networks are becoming increasingly strained, susceptible to security breaches and costly to maintain and operate.

Utility stakeholders understand this and have for years looked to deploy Field Area Networks (FANs) to consolidate those networks with a more secure, scalable, reliable and stable solution. Spectrum availability, cost and device availability has driven many utilities to invest in unlicensed mesh networks. But an increase in spectrum availability and the need for greater bandwidth capacity or lower latency than mesh networks allow, is forcing most utilities to seriously consider private cellular solutions, such as LTE and 5G.

While these private cellular networks are catching on across industries, the needs of the utility industry are unique. Utilities are looking to connect mostly stationary devices that are upload-centric, geographically pervasive and carry control traffic supporting critical infrastructure. These nuances have significant impacts on the architecture and design of private cellular networks for utilities.

To succeed with private cellular, utilities need to blend expertise in carrier networking with a deep understanding of how and why utilities operate the way they do

WWT is uniquely positioned to help utilities from both ends — from strategy that makes sense for a utility and its stakeholders to execution. Our understanding of the business landscape and expertise in network infrastructure can help utilities: 

  • Accelerate decision-making and delivery of business outcomes.
  • Optimize infrastructure to align with business goals.
  • Modernize IT operations and capabilities.
  • Align business and IT leadership to generate tech-enabled innovations and operating models.

Private LTE for Utilities 101

LTE — or Long Term Evolution — is the access part of the Evolved Packet System (EPS) that provides high spectral efficiency, high peak data rates, short trip time and flexibility in frequency and bandwidth.

Private LTE networks are, as one may assume, privately owned and managed locally with dedicated equipment for local coverage that is optimized for specific services as required by the entity deploying the network. 

Broadly speaking, benefits fall into three buckets: Coverage, cost and control. But for utilities, benefits reach even further with outcomes falling into four additional categories:

  • Enhanced grid reliability
  • Improved safety
  • Greater energy affordability
  • Increased shareholder return
Broader use case map
Broader use case map

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Five steps to private LTE success

Increased access to spectrum has lowered the barrier of entry for utilities to deploy private LTE networks. But utilities aren’t carriers, and private LTE deployments for utilities will require the integration of various components to make it easy to manage on an ongoing basis. 

Connectivity, however, is just a catalyst. As important as the solution will be the pursuit of the appropriate use cases, which are key to unlocking and driving outcomes at scale.

Speed to market is critical — utility customers increasingly expect and demand digital services when and where they want to consume them — but the critical nature of utilities also requires a precise, carefully thought out approach to avoid severe consequences later down the road.

We’ve identified five key steps utilities can take to ensure successful utilization of private LTE. 

Establish a multi-dimensional team

Transformational projects require not just the right technology, but the right mix of people. Utilities looking to deploy private LTE must consider how the network will support the people, applications and devices that utilize the network, and must therefore leverage the expertise of several critical areas.

Those domains include: 

  • Device management: Device selection, on-boarding and deployment, asset management, patching and break-fix.
  • IT/OT connectivity: Capability identification, deployment, holistic network selection, migration plan and lifecycle management. 
  • Analytics and application: Use case prioritization, edge vs central compute, data storage and integration, data accessibility and visualization, and data governance. 
  • Security: Device assessment, IIoT cyber requirements, threat and vulnerability assessments, regulatory compliance and exception reviews.

Alignment amongst these teams is also important. These projects run on trust built on strong communication, and your approach should be to build and maintain trust with these stakeholder groups to de-risk and expedite the project.

Prioritize capabilities and architectures

An outcome-based approach brings order to complexity and a thoughtful process to decision-making. Here, you should work to identify all potential use cases, assess their potential value and gauge complexity (from both a technical and non-technical standpoint) in order to prioritize them.

It’s important to remember that for some applications, Wi-Fi, mesh FANs, fiber, edge compute or other technology solutions will get the job done or work in tandem with private networks to drive outcomes. With myriad variations of technological capabilities available throughout the service territory, it is crucial to leverage private LTE where it is the best fit as it is a very capable technology, but not a panacea.

Throughout this process, the goal should be to use main key outcomes — enhanced grid reliability, improved safety, greater energy affordability and increased shareholder return — as guideposts. 

Consider all aspects of the network, and the value and challenges they may present: 

  • Spectrum
  • Radio systems
  • Backhaul systems
  • Radio core systems
  • Identity and security
  • Safety and security
  • App and service integration on wireless
  • Support and lifecycle management

One of the key capabilities of a private 4G/5G wireless system is dedicated licensed or lightly licensed spectrum for a customers system and location. This is a key differentiator compared to shared spectrum that Wi-Fi uses. 

All Wi-Fi spectrum is open and can be used by anyone, and as a result multiple systems users, groups etc can compete for the same spectrum blocks effectively limiting capacity, throughput and reliability. Wi-Fi can also be disrupted by voice and video systems that can legally use this spectrum and misconfigured Wi-Fi systems. Private 4G/5G systems do not have this issue. The spectrum is dedicated to the system and location. Anyone not authorized to use the spectrum can be legally removed and face legal consequences.

This allows for unfettered access and transmission for private 4G/5G systems offering a high degree of reliability, stability and performance.

NERC-CIP compliance needs to be considered as a decision point when architecting a private LTE solution for field connectivity. The architecture chosen could require private LTE infrastructure assets to be in scope and result in additional compliance requirements and risks. On the other hand, choosing an architecture that forces classification of the private LTE infrastructure into the compliance program can help guarantee proper application and monitoring of security controls to the affected assets. 

And don’t forget non-technical factors, such as people, process, culture and other business requirements. Moving from legacy grid infrastructure to a more modernized network such as private LTE is not just a technical change — it’s a cultural one too that will demand a shift in how a utility operates and approaches its business. 

Cost and efficiency are major attractions of a private LTE model, so the network must be set up to realize these benefits. Doing so requires targeted automation that enables a self-service approach and allows the utility to scale up or down dynamically based on demand. It also requires a shift towards an architecture that addresses not just OPEX challenges but lowers total cost of ownership of full solutions long-term as well. 

Rapidly prototype and validate your options

Private LTE will make the utilities more agile, aware, efficient, intelligent, safe and sustainable. But decision makers need confidence the solutions validated in the lab will work as intended when deployed in the field and interoperate with the devices and applications that will ultimately deliver value. 

Utilizing a hybrid lab and service environment — one that is tangible and experiential — to test solutions in a more real-world setting helps alleviate risk — from both a financial and operational standpoint.

An iterative, hybrid lab also allows you to iterate quickly and deliver value often, which helps gain organizational buy-in along every step of the process (key to any transformational undertaking).

This starts by leveraging a pure lab environment, testing functionality and system capabilities without concern for the local RF environment. This testing assesses base technology capability, integrations, usability, and performance, either by setting up cores in your own lab or leveraging WWT’s Advanced Technology Center, where multiple OEMs’ technologies can be compared.

Following testing, hybrid lab testing with a core in the lab and eNodeBs and UEs in service territory expands the validation testing to factor in local RF nuances in production environments while still leveraging lab infrastructure for the core. 

Once solutions are vetted in a hybrid environment, an OEM is selected and a design is determined, an initial production implementation will leverage learnings from the testing to date and start to focus on maturing the design, implementation and full-stack solutions.

Deploy validated solutions at scale

Deploying private LTE and expanding your coverage beyond pilot programs is an incredibly complex exercise in planning and execution. The key question becomes: How can you quickly realize ROI? 

The faster you build solutions, the sooner you can monetize. It’s a simple statement stock full of nuance. The key word is “solutions” instead of networks.

While deploying the network is an obviously critical component to realizing the ROI of the network, coverage doesn’t become valuable until it is leveraged. Therefore, it is critical to align the deployment of the network with the implementation and migration of services to the network. 

Whether the business case is driven by moving existing assets off of OPEX-based carrier networks or enabling new functionality based on greater network coverage and capacity, ensuring the network deployment prioritizes sites that drive the business case is one of the key drivers of time-to-value.  

A successful deployment requires strong program management, ordering equipment, managing and integrating components from various vendors, building and testing the actual solutions (and then doing so again on site), working with local municipalities or cell tower companies. It can be a lengthy process. But there is opportunity to streamline the journey. Here’s how:

  • Maintain alignment: with so many stakeholders involved, it is critical to establish strong program management, establish regular cadences with the core and broader teams, and maintain an integrated master plan throughout the program.
  • Avoid the wait: Product lead times can take up to 12 months to procure, leading to delays in rollout. Consolidating planning and management under one roof not only reduces lead times, it gives you a single point of contact for the rest of your network build.
  • Mitigate dead on arrivals: Dead on arrival (DOA) rates of equipment can be catastrophic to deployment timelines. Centralized and strategic resourcing helps identify the DOAs faster and can sidestep the headache of waiting for a replacement by leveraging pre-stocked inventory.
  • Consistency and expertise: The disaggregated modern connectivity solutions has made integration colossally complex, which demands a high-level of skilled resources to perform. Centrally integrating your network provides consistency across solutions and eliminates the need for re-work on site.
  • Reduce time on-site: Centralized buildout significantly cuts down on the time and expertise needed on site by making sure solutions will work as intended once in the field. It should be as easy as unboxing the solution and plugging it in with minimal turn up effort.

Mature your network operations.

While maturing the network seems far off, it is critical to establish the right foundations to enable maturation down the road. That maturation will take the forms of lifecycle management, continuous improvement, automation and AIOps, all of which require data about the network to do correctly. 

Data about the assets themselves, their performance, the maintenance processes and break/fix work orders can’t be collected after the fact, so establishing the systems and processes to capture that data up front makes maturation possible down the road.

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Conclusion

The utility industry has seen minimal foundational changes to operations, business models and competitive landscapes over the last century. But that narrative is changing as various dynamics — from changing weather patterns and adoption of electric vehicles to new competition and regulations — shape the future of the industry.

Utilities must react accordingly and transform on four key areas frontiers: 

  • Customer experience
  • Worker experience
  • Line of business digitalization
  • Core IT

Private LTE networks enable this modernization acting as the nerves of the grid’s Digital Nervous System, delivering a transport network that can reach all corners of your service area and modernizing your grid to lead to a more reliable and safe grid that is cost effective and returns value to shareholders.