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US energy infrastructure investments must extend to utilities' telecom networks

As attention turns to the Trump administration's infrastructure plan andpower sector interests look to voice their concerns, the telecommunicationsnetworks that serve the electricity grid cannot be forgotten in the debate, atrade group serving critical infrastructure providers said Tuesday.

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"When the electricity goes out and [utilities are] trying to restorepower, [they] need to be able to communicate internally with each other,"Utilities Technology Council President and CEO Joy Ditto said of theimportance of these networks at an event conducted by the Bipartisan PolicyCenter.

UTC, founded in 1948, has its roots in advocating for the allocation ofradio spectrum for utilities, and now represents electric, gas and waterutilities as well as natural gas pipelines, critical infrastructure companiesand other industry stakeholders on issues pertaining to telecommunications andinformation technology.

Ditto shared that utilities deploy custom private networks to meet theirreliability needs concerning communications. While a key part of maintainingreliability, these networks and their future applications face investment andregulatory challenges.

US airwaves known as spectrum are the invisible infrastructure needed forwireless services. These airwaves are managed through federal governmentallocation. The Federal Communications Commission manages commercial spectrumlicenses, while the Commerce Department oversees government spectrum.

UTILITIES CHALLENGED BY SPECTRUM POLICY

The so-called "internet of things' (IoT) that allows devices to talk toeach other is not possible without spectrum. In the electric sector, this hasan impact on sensor technologies, smart meters and other communicationsdevices that are becoming increasingly integral to grid reliability, Dittosaid.

But US "spectrum policy and how it's been promulgated so far doesn'treally take into consideration criticality," Ditto said. The fact thatindustries such as the electricity and gas sectors underpin the economy is"not really considered as a factor in the FCC's current policies" governingspectrum allocation.

This means that many utilities have had to partner with vendors who holdspectrum licenses in order to deploy their private networks on unshared, moresecure airwaves.

"When we can't guarantee that the policies that are in place or are goingto be in place in the future recognize that there are critical infrastructureneeds, that's a problem that needs to be solved," Ditto said.

Part of the problem, she said, is that "there's a right hand, left handissue going on in the federal government," where the White House, Congress andthe departments of Energy and Homeland Security, for instance, put a lot ofemphasis on "how electric, gas and water utilities are so important and vital,yet you see an agency like the FCC where that is just not part of theirlexicon."

This problem is not new to the Trump administration but has been an issuefor years regardless of the political party in power, Ditto said. "So we needto have these agencies start talking to each other and recognizing that thereare critical infrastructure [spectrum needs]. That's a challenge, but I thinkit's solvable in the long term."

Ditto envisions utilities' private networks enabling more efficientmanagement and more granular responses to customers' needs so that "smart"refrigerators and washing machines one day run in a manner that optimizeselectricity deployment. "We really have to do a lot to get there, but theseprivate networks we already provision and are doing more with are going to bean important part of that," she said.

Doug Smith, president and CEO of custom private network developer Ligado,spoke to other applications for private networks that are available today.

"Custom private networks take full advantage of all the innovation andtechnology that we have available to us," and tailor it to an individualcustomer or industry, he said at the BPC event. These networks offer theirowners full control over upgrades and maintenance, he added.

His company's clients are offered enhanced security and quality ofservice by having their networks built on Ligado's 40 megahertz of licensedmid-band spectrum. The company is also developing a satellite-terrestrialnetwork to support 5G and IoT applications in North America.

PRIVATE NETWORKS AID RECOVERY RESPONSE

Smith pointed to demonstrated success with the remote command and controldrones to illustrate how the utility space could use the combination of asatellite and a terrestrial network.

A drone, he said, can be flown remotely by a pilot at a utility's controlcenter to inspect power lines or other facilities experiencing servicedisruptions or impacted by extreme weather events. The drone would utilize asecure, reliable link provided by Ligado's satellite network to fly, and usethe ground-based network to download real-time, high-definition videos. Thatvideo would allow the utility to dispatch the right personnel and equipment toa precise location to repair the damage, Smith said.

But securing upfront investments to deploy these types of innovativesolutions more broadly across the US is complicated by electric utilitiesbeing rate-regulated at the state and local levels, Ditto said.

"There is a strong view that I share that electricity needs to beaffordable," she contended. "In order to keep those rates affordable, there'sa sensitivity by [utility] regulators" to large investments in new technologythat will impact ratepayers.

"There's a tendency to want to really be comfortable that whatever theinvestment is, it's going to pay off in the long term. It can't be veryrisky," Ditto continued. "And that does limit us sometimes in terms of what wecan do."

Thus, she said her trade group's members will often look to smaller pilotprojects where, for instance, a "particular city is willing to increase itsrates in the city because they really want to be innovative."

In that case, the utility works "with that city to do it, and there's acomfort level, whereas a less high-income city or town might be more hesitantto impact ratepayers in that way," she said.

Ditto asserted that where utilities "need help from our vendor partnersand others is making the case that over time these technologies will pay backthe ratepayer," that the technology is feasible and that it will addefficiencies to systems rather than just being technology for technology'ssake.

Cybersecurity issues, including supply chain concerns, and the need todeploy networks and new technologies in a way that holds up to utilities' highreliability standards were also discussed as potential barriers. Whiledifficult to overcome, Ditto said all of the challenges were solvable. --Jasmin Melvin, jasmin.melvin@spglobal.com

--Edited by Mark Watson, newsdesk@spglobal.com