Private LTE network strengthening utility operations

AT&T and Nokia are bringing to market a private 4G LTE network solution for utilities.
Published: Wed 25 May 2016

With their increasingly broad network reach, telecommunications companies are a natural potential communications provider to utilities and many are making inroads into this space. [see e.g. Engerati-Telcos Eye German Energy Market]

But what about the utilities that prefer - for purposes of security, control, reliability or other reasons - to deploy and manage their own networks? In the past many utilities have installed private networks, however these have tended to be for specific applications such as SCADA and/or are based on proprietary technologies. How can these companies now take advantage of the latest technologies with their higher speeds and data capacity and potential to support an Internet of Things strategy?

To meet this need, AT&T and Nokia are working together to offer a 4G LTE solution for utilities in the US.

“There is a perfect storm happening as utilities install more and more devices such as sensors and distributed resources to the grid,” Mark Madden, Nokia’s regional vice president, North American Utilities, told Engerati in an exclusive interview. “Highly reliable and robust communication is needed to manage these in real-time and the opportunity to transform from TDM to IP-based communications is now here.”

In the US, previous efforts to secure dedicated broadband spectrum for utilities have been declined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), preferring that it be secured either by participation in spectrum auctions, or obtained on the secondary market from existing licensees. Solutions such as WiMAX generally operate in unlicensed or lightly regulated spectrum, where there is the risk of interference from other users – and with the prospect of up to 50 billion connected devices by 2020, that interference risk is growing.

4G LTE solution

The solution makes use of a portion of spectrum licensed to AT&T. Coupled with an end-to-end LTE networking infrastructure from Nokia, it allows utilities to build out and manage their own private 4G LTE networks.

The solution is comprised of the base stations, backhaul network, evolved packet core, and spectrum, and offers the ability to connect a wide range of utility gear such as sensors, switches, meters and more.

“Co-located with the utility gear will be a Nokia field device, which is essentially a router with an internal LTE modem,” explains Madden. “The router is a multiprotocol label switching device which segregates and combines data from multiple sources on to a single network and then transmits it to the utility’s operations centre or other chosen location.”

As such, the private LTE network is intended to replace many other mission-critical operations networks the utility may have in place, consolidate these applications on to a single, flexible, extensible and secure technology; and to futureproof, expand, and enhance the utility’s ability to address new applications and sensors.  “It gives utilities the opportunity to modernize their network, move away from a leased line model, and control their own destiny, which is something they’ve been asking us to provide for a long time,” Madden comments.

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4G LTE benefits

From monitoring devices such as phasor measurement units to providing services such as demand response and managing renewables such as solar and wind, there are a growing number of use cases in which utilities require high speed, real-time or near-real-time communications capability.

“Our solution is designed to provide the low latency and high reliability and security these applications demand,” says Madden.

Redundancy and backup is built in with the router having the ability to connect to more than one wireless network – one to the utility network and the second to the AT&T network.

Madden says that discussions on deploying the solution are currently taking place with utilities and the companies expect to get some pilots in place towards the end of 2016.

“AT&T’s spectrum is applicable for fixed network applications and, as such, is very appropriate to utilities,” Madden comments. “We want to help utilities improve their operations and improve the efficiency of their distribution grid and one way to do that is to give them more control over their communication assets.”

More information

UTC Supports New Option for Utilities to Access Spectrum and Equipment for Wireless Communications

AT&T and Nokia private LTE network solution for U.S. Utilities