A Number of Factors Must Be Considered in the Commercial Wireless Debate

A number of interesting policy discussions were highlighted at the summer session of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissions (NARUC), which recently ended. A couple discussions that flew under the radar but are worth noting pertain to recommendations made for smart grid communications platforms. One of the take-aways was that electric utilities were encouraged to consider using commercial wireless networks for their smart grid deployments. The alternative, of course, is for a utility to own their own network, which many utilities have historically viewed as a more simple approach than attempting to integrate a commercial option into their existing architecture.  For many utilities, economics are the primary consideration in the own or lease decision.

There was also consensus among the panelists that legacy systems cannot accommodate the growth of smart grid technologies and that the focus must be on building out additional broadband.  Other panelists argued that the entire infrastructure of the electric industry should transition to an all Internet Protocol (IP)-based network and that wireless spectrum reform will dominate the industry over the next several years.

There is certainly a correlation between these discussions and the national debate occurring on the opening up the 700 MHz spectrum for use in utility smart grid deployments. In February of this year, Congress passed payroll-tax legislation in February that included reallocating the 700 MHz D Block spectrum to public safety providers and $7 billion in federal funding to help pay for a nationwide wireless broadband network for first responders. There has been an ongoing policy debate before the Federal Communications Commission classify utilities as first responders and allow them access to this portion of the spectrum.  That is too complex a topic to be covered here, but will be the subject of future blog posts.
Prior to making a decision to either use a commercial carrier or maintain/build out a legacy system, there are a number of factors that a utility must consider:

  • Change in OpEx costs
  • Lack of control of the network
  • Cyber Security threats
  • Quality of Service
  • Priority of data packets
  • Reliability
  • Coverage issues
  • Ability/Inability to meet the technical requirements of the smart grid application
  • High frequency of hardware refreshes

The decision to own or lease a communications network can be impacted by a number of complex factors, and should be thoroughly vetted as part of the strategic roadmap for smart grid deployment. There is little that can be said to generalize the consideration among diverse utilities beyond the fact that advances in the commercial wireless networks have created new options for the critical applications associated with smart grid deployments and should be considered in the business case evaluations.

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