Anterix CEO Says Private LTE Can Help Solve Grid Modernization Challenges
Thursday, January 21, 2021 | Comments
Anterix CEO Rob Schwartz said that private LTE can help solve the challenges created by grid modernization within the electric distribution community.

“The electric infrastructure design hasn’t really been required to change over the last few decades,” Schwartz said.

But that has changed as more and more renewable energy sources are integrated into the network, and there are new demands for energy that didn’t previously exist. In the past, electricity generally entered the grid in one area but that has changed as a variety of new types of renewable energy are added to the grid, Schwartz said. Additionally, new energy demands such as charging stations for electric cars create new exit points on the grid that did not previously exist.

“Each of these points of entry and exit become places that need to be measured,” Schwartz said.

While services such as LMR, SCADA and other legacy services have served utilities well in the past, the large network of sensors needed to monitor all of these new entry and exit points on the network requires a more robust network, such as a private LTE network.

Anterix signed a 30-year contract with Ameren to provide 900 MHz spectrum for a private LTE network for the utility. For many years, Anterix petitioned the FCC to realign the 900 MHz band to allow for broadband use; the FCC took action on that issue in 2020 and realigned the band.

In addition to the Ameren contract, Anterix has been working with utilities such as Xcel Energy and the New York Power Authority (NYPA) on initial deployments of 900 MHz private LTE networks to test out different use cases for the network.

Schwartz said that the low-band spectrum of the 900 MHz band provides an ideal foundation for a private LTE network supporting utility operations. The low-band spectrum provides strong propagation and penetration needed for utility applications.

Once that 900 MHz foundation is built, mid-band spectrum can be layered on top to build out more capabilities and coverage, Schwartz said. One specific mid band many utilities are beginning to look at is the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), he said.

The CBRS has several types of uses: unlicensed, priority access license (PAL) and incumbent. Incumbents, such as defense radar systems have the most protection in the band. The band is set up with a spectrum access system (SAS) that facilitates spectrum sharing between unlicensed and PAL users.

Many utilities are looking at purchasing 900 MHz spectrum and then building out capacity on the network by layering unlicensed CBRS use on top of that foundation, Schwartz said.

“If you deploy a 900 MHz network, you get the ability to use not just those licenses but the unlicensed spectrum,” Schwartz said. “That unlicensed spectrum becomes a lot more valuable when you put it on top of 900 MHz.”

The mid-band spectrum is then good for providing higher capacity to areas such as large campuses and in buildings and the 900 MHz low-band spectrum can then be used to provide coverage across wider areas, which is especially important for utilities, whose infrastructure generally covers a wide area, Schwartz said. Additionally, there are many products that support both CBRS and 900 MHz spectrum, he said.

Schwartz said that the results of the CBRS PAL auction, in which several utilities bid, highlighted a shift in spectrum usage by utilities. In the past, most utilities would not bid and purchase spectrum but would instead seek licenses from the FCC.

“This auction was a big dynamic shift and these utilities are showing that they are now in, and we have been in conversation with many of them,” he said.

Schwartz said that as the private LTE ecosystem for utilities grows, it’s opening up the way for new collaboration and innovation between utilities. To that end, Anterix and utilities founded the Utilities Broadband Alliance (UBBA) to help spur that collaboration.

That alliance has given utilities a place to share innovations and collaborate to continue building out the 900 MHz and private LTE ecosystem. Some use cases utilities using or testing out the 900 MHz spectrum have tested so far include using sensors to help mitigate the risk of powerlines falling and starting fires, mitigating the rising number of cybersecurity threats by having a separate network, using artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics to monitor potential network risks, and using heat cameras to monitor wires that might be getting too hot.

“As more utilities join 900 MHz, the ecosystem begins to scale and grow, and the innovation becomes available to everyone,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said that Anterix expects to have another utility customer signed by the end of March and is hoping to continue foster innovation and grow the private LTE ecosystem.

“What we’re seeing here is a movement of the industry considerably and with the Ameren deal, Anterix is here for 30 years to be a partner for them, and we’re looking forward to many more partnerships in the future,” Schwartz said.

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