Washington — A recent regulatory decision realigning a swath of wireless airwaves for use by utilities and other critical infrastructure entities was seen as positive for the power sector though some limitations were identified by panelists during discussions at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners' summer policy summit.
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The Federal Communications Commission in May adopted rules after more than five years of debate that allow the transition of narrowband spectrum primarily used for two-way radio dispatch to a contiguous block of airwaves for private wireless long term evolution (LTE) services.
The spectrum on the 900 MHz band will be available to utilities to support mission-critical broadband applications and help maintain critical infrastructure, primarily through the buildout of private LTE networks that are expected to bolster efficiency, resiliency and cybersecurity.
Utilities will be able to deploy private LTE networks on the spectrum band, enabling wireless devices and sensors with measuring and control functions that provide greater situational awareness to operate at the so-called last mile, where fiber connectivity becomes uneconomical, said Anterix CEO Morgan O'Brien.
Anterix is the largest holder of licensed spectrum in the 900 MHz band, and O'Brien first floated the idea of repurposing narrowband spectrum to broadband in 2013, before the company brought a petition to the FCC.
Asked about potential uses of the spectrum by the utility sector, O'Brien provided an example of utilities with wildfire risk installing devices that monitor for breaks in a live power line. With wireless LTE broadband, a notification of a damaged wire can be sent and trigger action to deactivate that wire before it hits the ground, which typically takes about 1.4 seconds. "This technology permits the roundtrip of that communication within that timeframe," O'Brien said.
He also mentioned the control of drones and implementation of the latest technology for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems — which gather and analyze real-time data — among other applications. "The beauty of broadband, and particularly the LTE technology, is that many functions can be combined on a single system," O'Brien said.
An important consideration for state utility regulators will be that "while there is a significant upfront investment in deploying these new technologies, over time the ability to combine multiple uses on a single network and the ability of that network to extend into decades, and then to have an easy transition to the next generation of say 4G to 5G warrants that kind of investment," O'Brien said.
Shay Bahramirad, vice president of engineering and smart grid for Commonwealth Edison, added to the conversation that these advanced communication capabilities are "crucial for operation of the power grid, as well as enabling different types of technologies and integration of distributed energy resources."
ComEd is among utilities working toward grid modernization, and is currently developing an advanced microgrid.
Beyond microgrids, private LTE networks at utilities will enable grid edge technologies that "function to prevent cascading outages, increase cybersecurity capabilities" and deploy distributed energy resource management systems to help integrate solar and energy storage resources, Bahramirad said.
Other uses might include improving access to rural broadband, but a Department of Energy official noted the importance of remembering spectrum comes with limitations, namely that it is finite so its uses need to be properly prioritized.
"The real issue we have to be careful here with LTE is over-utilizing that LTE," said David Wells, a senior adviser in DOE's Office of Electricity.
He stressed the security benefits of the new LTE capabilities provided to utilities. "If you own your own network, ... you can secure your network," he said, whereas that was not possible when relying on Wi-Fi or service from telecommunications companies.
A focus on grid resilience and operations as the current energy transition puts more emphasis on distributed generation where fiber is not an option was also necessary, he said.
O'Brien echoed this sentiment, saying the utility industry will be looking "to put as much security into the critical elements of the grid as it modernizes and as it becomes more and more dependent on distributed generation."
But on the other hand, the infrastructure deployed to make new private LTE networks possible, such as towers and fiber backhaul, could be shared with rural broadband, he said. With the right kind of partnerships between rural communities and the utilities deploying LTE infrastructure towers and backhaul, sharing can make $1 go to two purposes, O'Brien said.