Utilities have not historically acquired spectrum in a competitive landscape to build utility-grade telecommunications networks. This is now changing. Orders from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have opened up a number of spectrum options, making private wireless networks for utilities a realistic option. However, even with spectrum available and seemingly straightforward technology selections, building private utility-owned broadband wireless systems based on 4G long-term evolution (LTE) technology will not be easy without a programmatic approach.
For utilities, a private long-term evolution (PLTE) network will eliminate the need for multiple communications systems at substations, control centers and remote locations. Operational controls, security systems and voice systems each currently have different single purpose communications networks. Upon conversion to an LTE network, this issue will be resolved as essential communications not currently connected to a fiber‑optic network will have a single communication infrastructure, thus creating increased reliability and operational efficiencies.
These efficiencies are multiplied exponentially as communications-based sensing and control assets are installed and operated by utilities. It’s easy to understand the excitement being generated by the prospect of new, more effective and cost-efficient telecommunications systems. This potential is why many utilities will soon be launching telecom projects at a scale previously unheard of in the utility space.
However, these projects are unlike any other capital improvements utilities have tackled.
While the nuts and bolts of constructing a telecommunications project on a single site may not be overly complex, this can change dramatically when construction installations occur simultaneously on geographically different sites that could tally in the hundreds throughout the course of a year. Different terrains, multiple requirements for permitting and space considerations all add to the complexity and uniqueness construction teams face on each site. Then, add the complications of working with the information technology/operational technology (IT/OT) groups placing the communications backhaul equipment, the LTE specialists bringing their skill sets, and frequent events requiring troubleshooting on-site. It’s easy to see how the complexity of deployment can grow significantly.
While the major telecommunications carriers have learned how to work around these deployment concerns, utilities have traditionally not had to worry about them. Optimizing coverage, cost and functionality for an LTE network is significantly different from anything utilities have faced before. Also, the software models, while highly accurate these days, don’t always translate to real-world performance. Who holds that risk? Utilities are about to enter a whole new ballgame and it is important to have a good understanding of all the variables caused by multiple stakeholders before getting started.