Ericsson and Cisco join group calling for private networks for US utilities

More and more industries are looking to private cellular networks to support their specific requirements, or even to their own spectrum. If 5G, and even 4G, are to deliver the biggest benefits for each individual vertical, each will need networks that are deployed and optimized in individual ways, with specific levels of power efficiency, data speed, latency and security. The days of a single, high performance network supporting every requirement are coming to an end, and no MNO could create a network that would deliver all the advantages envisaged for 5G – even with flexible platforms like network slicing.

This thinking has seen the German auto and manufacturing sectors successfully lobbying for 5G spectrum to be earmarked for industrial use; and a rise in the companies supporting modern approaches to private networks, including ‘heavy MVNOs’ building their own equipment for specific locations or verticals; and virtualized core platforms that can provide each enterprise with its own customized core and RAN from the cloud.

Public utilities have been in the forefront of the push for more specialized 4G and 5G networks for certain sectors. In some countries, like the UK, they have some of their own spectrum anyway, for very specific applications; they have similar scale and geographical reach to those of telcos, and with their own fiber resources; and they want to transform their operations using smart grid Industrial IoT and AI-supported grid optimization.

In the USA, a group of companies has been formed to promote the development of private broadband networks (wired and wireless) for energy providers. Members include telecoms equipment vendors (such as Ericsson and Cisco), which may have to decide to alienate their core customers by chasing these new customers; as well as spectrum licensees and utilities.

The Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA) numbers 13 founding members which argue that utilities need to rationalize the large number of different networks and protocols they currently use – up to a dozen – for their various operational processes and services.

Morgan O’Brien, CEO of pdvWireless, one of the founders, said in an interview: “We’re not talking about replacing everything with one, but we are talking about the one that gives the greatest level of control to the utility over the communications. These are the communications, which we must know are being delivered in the right time at the right place, and only a utility can make that judgment.”

This general feeling that the telcos cannot fully understand the requirements of different vertical sectors, or may critical judgements about their communications priorities, is echoed in many sectors and countries. Railway operators, manufacturers, public safety agencies and healthcare providers are some industries which have petitioned governments and regulators for greater freedom to deploy their own networks, leaving the operators to focus on national level broadband roll-outs to support consumers and any applications requiring generic broadband capabilities.

O’Brien told FierceWireless: “Being critical infrastructure, having safety of life and property features, utilities ought to have the same exclusive spectrum [as public safety]. They don’t ask for it as control freaks,” but because they are best placed to make decisions about the right latency levels and right access priorities to support safety and efficiency.

Some utility applications, including smart meters, will be well served by general commercial networks, said the UBBA, but beyond a certain level of latency, security or availability, something more specialized becomes essential.

“The Tier 1 carriers, because of the huge amounts of spectrum they have, the number of customers they’re serving and the deployments they have, will have a robust business in industrial IoT, no doubt about it. But their architecture is more primarily consumer oriented and their point of view is consumer oriented,” O’Brien said. “They don’t have any industrial critical infrastructure sense. That’s why public safety wanted to have their own network” [FirstNet].

UBBA’s other founding members include Ameren, Burns & McDonnell, Cisco, Encore Networks, Ericsson, Federated Wireless, General Electric, Motorola Solutions, Multi-Tech Systems, National Grid, Sierra Wireless and Southern Linc.

The formation of the UBBA follows a loud call last May, by the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), to let its members retain control of interference-free spectrum and continue to operate their own private wireless networks. The UTC told government agencies that the reason was that “utilities have built out and maintained their own ICT networks, rather than outsourcing service from commercial telecommunications carriers. Utilities require high levels of reliability that traditional telecommunications carriers are unable or unwilling to provide”.

The Washington DC-based Council wants the FCC to ensure that its members current spectrum holdings are protected from interference from any new services, and that they have the opportunity to gain more spectrum if required. It argues that the FCC must not treat utilities just like any other industry, since they have critical requirements which rely on interference-free airwaves. For example, in the ongoing debate about shared spectrum in the CBRS 3.5 GHz band, the UTC opposes expansion to include the 3.65 GHz band, because it could cause interference to incumbent systems there.

“Utilities rely on both wireless and wireline technologies to run their ICT networks,” the Council asserted in its filing. “Depending on the size, location, terrain, and geography of a utility’s service territory, along with the expense of laying fiber lines to these remote locations, many utilities rely on wireless communications. Like any wireless network, utility ICT systems need radiofrequency spectrum to function, and the reliability of the wireless communications may be affected by radio frequency interference. Therefore, access to adequate and interference-free spectrum is a requirement if these networks are to work as intended.”

The filing also called for the energy regulator – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission – to work more closely with the FCC on these issues. The former body recently initiated a ‘Grid Resilience Order’ aiming to protect the USA’s power and electricity grids from cyberattacks and extreme weather, among other threats. Spectrum is a key part of that effort, argued the Council.

“These networks improve the reliability and resiliency of the grid by supplying real time situational awareness to control room operators,” its submission continued. “Networks also enable integration of distributed energy technologies such as battery storage, smart meters, and rooftop solar. Additionally, utilities use communications networks to restore service after devastating storms and other natural disasters and man-made incidents.”

Rob Thormeyer, the UTC’s director of communications and advocacy, said that the group is focused on spectrum in 6 GHz, 3.5 GHz, 4.9 GHz and 406-420 MHz bands.

US utilities are in a different position from those in countries that do not allow spectrum trading because they can buy airwaves on the open market. Last year, for instance, the Salt River Project in Arizona said it would build its own network in 700 MHz spectrum acquired from Access Spectrum in 2015, using equipment from MiMOMax Wireless. Access has also sold 700 MHz licences to Northwestern Energy in Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota; Portland General Electric in Oregon; and Navopache Electric in Arizona.

This makes US utilities less reliant on services supplied by MNOs, though AT&T and Nokia did say, back in 2015, that they were developing an LTE private network to support smart grid – but that project has been quiet since.

Of course, private dedicated networks deprive all stakeholders of the economies of scale which could be achieved if different industries could all use a common mobile platform. There is an argument that, rather than fighting for their own private assets, utilities, railways and others should co-invest in 5G roll-outs along with MNOs, giving them greater rights to influence how the network is deployed, while increasing the funds available to implement complex technologies such as ultra-low latency communications.

In Japan, ecommerce giant Rakuten recently signed up several utilities to support its roll-out of its own mobile network, while in China, utilities are among the industrial partners financing China Unicom, and gaining a considerable say in its 5G plans.