Utility Broadband Alliance chases LTE, challenges MNOs

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 communication that enables smart grid applications.

The utility members of UBBA are Ameren, Evergy, National Grid, Southern Linc (part of the Southern Company), and Xcel Energy. On the LTE side of things, the more familiar vendor members are Cisco, 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, Sonim Technologies, 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, as our introduction to the group. Broadly, UBBA is interested in moving beyond the narrowband communications that utilities have some experience with, and into broadband opportunities, explained Harris.

Soft-launched at DistribuTech, 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 AMI, 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.

We clarified if UBBA was looking at power-line communication (PLC) technologies, and Harris explained that the focus was on private LTE at the moment, with an angle for interoperability with other connections. 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, you could consolidate these under one network umbrella, and this has been Southern’s experience. Many utilities have ten to twenty networks, which gets cumbersome very quickly.

This prompted the question of why the MNOs aren’t able to offer these services – why the UBBA members feel that this is the better approach than paying a service provider that already likely has network coverage in the places you need it. Harris said that if you ask the MNOs, they will say that they can offer these services, but over public networks.

Harris went on to say that when you start talking about critical infrastructure, interference concerns, and real-time communication with five-nines uptime, these cannot and should not ever have to compete with other entities on the same public network. In Harris’ opinion, those functions have to run on a private network, and she pointed to extreme weather events where the public wireless networks are often the first service to collapse as evidence.

McIntyre said that Harris nailed the main points, adding that while everything may look good on a public network on a blue-sky day, disasters are just around the corner, and the network had better hold up. Resiliency and cybersecurity are top of mind for utilities these days, he added.

We asked if the UBBA was looking to expand beyond the initial US focus. Harris said that there was interest from Canada, and that there were plans to go global at some point, as utilities across the board face the same issues and challenges.

Returning to the MNOs, we asked if this was an area that the utility sector could ever see being properly provided by the MNO ecosystem, Harris says that she wouldn’t go so far to say that the utility and energy sector is effectively off limits to public network providers. 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 Cat-M and Cat-NB, although McIntyre thinks that Cat-NB could be too limited for the more advanced smart grid functions, in terms of bandwidth and latency.

Wrapping up the conversation, Harris said that UBBA was going to be something like the CBRS Alliance, and that it was about to launch its members-only portal that will provide access to all the shared documents and resources. In the first year, UBBA isn’t charging 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 whitepapers, reference architectures, and RFP templates are the initial focus.