US utilities alliance eyes global reach for private LTE approach

Founded back in January, the Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA) is a US-centric organization that is pursuing private wireless broadband, specifically LTE, for utility applications. Formed by a few utilities and a collection of technology providers, UBBA is pushing to fill a gap in the market that the MNOs have not been able to fill – wireless networks capable of mission-critical connectivity to enable smart grid applications.

The utility members of UBBA are Evergy, National Grid, and Southern Linc (part of the Southern Company). On the LTE side of things, the more familiar vendor members are Ericsson, Federated Wireless, Motorola Solutions, Multitech, and Sierra Wireless, with the other vendor members consist of Anterix, Burns McDonnell, CouncilRock, Encore Networks, 4RF, General Electric’s MDS wings and Tait Communications.

Most of these vendors are in the network hardware, services and installation game, but Federated Wireless is notable for providing the Spectrum Access Systems (SAS) used in the CBRS band pilots that have been cropping up all over the country. Essentially, SAS is a way to ensure that communications can be carried out in a particular channel without interference, and are broadly an evolution of the old system of consulting a database of permissions.

We spoke to Bobbi Harris, who heads up UBBA’s member engagement and operations, and Alan McIntyre, Southern Linc’s engineering director, who said that UBBA is interested in moving beyond the narrowband communications that utilities have some experience with, and into broadband applications.

Soft-launched at DistribuTech earlier this year, UBBA has 19 members so far, comprising some 60 individuals who meet weekly. UBBA has four working groups, which were established to tackle specific concerns.

The first is Business, which looks at capex and opex, financial models, rates justifications, and regulatory matters. The second is Use Cases, which has so far identified 30 key cases where the technology can be put to work, with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distributed energy resources (DER) and substation automation being prime examples.

Technology is the third, and looks at reference network architectures, spectrum allocations and characteristics, as well as the complexities of public versus private networks. The fourth working group is Cybersecurity, which does what it says on the tin – although its main current focus is examining the difference between private networks with critical infrastructure and public networks.

Harris explained that the focus was on private LTE at the moment, with an angle for interoperability with other connections such as powerline communications in future. 5G is, of course, part of the conversation, and Harris said that UBBA will be staying abreast of that topic.

Asking whether such networks were the first step towards becoming conventional ISPs, McIntyre explained that Southern had already built a private LTE network, and was also selling access to this network commercially, initially focused on business and public sector verticals. However, for Southern, private broadband networks are a way to connect smart grid assets, not a means to becoming an MNO.

McIntyre explained that utilities have had private networks for some time, but these were often inefficient. Usually, the network would have a single use, such as push-to-talk radios, AMI, or SCADA, and so the utility would end up with multiple disparate networks. With LTE, McIntyre says, these could be consolidated under one network umbrella, and this has been Southern’s experience. Many utilities have 10-20 networks, which gets cumbersome very quickly.

This prompted the question of why UBBA members feel that this is the better approach than paying an MNO that already has network coverage in the places where it is needed. But Harris said that, with regard to critical infrastructure, interference concerns, and real time communication with five-nines uptime, these should not ever have to compete with other users on the same public network. Resiliency and cybersecurity are top of mind for utilities these days, McIntyre added.

There are some areas, such as last mile metering connections, where a hybrid public-private approach can work. As for LPWAN, UBBA is paying attention to both LTE-M and NB-IoT, although McIntyre thinks that the latter could be too limited for the more advanced smart grid functions, in terms of bandwidth and latency.

Beyond the initial US focus, Harris said that there is interest from Canada, and that there are plans to go global at some point, as utilities across the board face the same issues and challenges.

UBBA is about to launch a members-only portal that will provide access to all the shared documents and resources. In the first year, it will not charge membership fees, and will soon decide on its governance and board structure, which will pave the way for membership levels and fees to be finalized in 2020. The deliverables are the key, and white papers, reference architectures and RFP templates are the initial focus.