A Utility Sharing Request
Wednesday, September 26, 2012 | Comments
 
 
By Kathleen Nelson
 
When the Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012 passed last February, a large quantity of spectrum was allocated to public safety to build a public-safety nationwide broadband network under the guidance of a newly created board, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet). A provision in the legislation opened a door for utilities to potentially have access to the network on a secondary basis.
 
The legislation presents important questions to the utility industry. For example, what is meant by secondary basis? What potential opportunities does it create for utilities that are hoping to use this network for critical control and monitoring of the electric utility grid? And what would a potential partnership look like? Although many of these questions can’t be answered until FirstNet sets guidelines, now is the appropriate time to start making the case for utilities and other critical infrastructure to share the network with public safety.
 
There would be many benefits for utilities to have access to the network. While public safety now has dedicated spectrum, utilities do not — other than narrowband 12.5-kilohertz channels and spectrum that can be negotiated as a lease or purchase from other license holders. Policy-makers have told utilities they will not get dedicated spectrum. This was made clear at the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) Critical Infrastructure Communications Summit June 19, where Washington sent a message that utilities will most likely not be given dedicated spectrum and will need to share spectrum in the future.
 
What Utilities Offer
There are many benefits for public safety in sharing a network with utilities. Similar to public safety, utilities have owned and operated their own telecommunications networks for decades, many of them dating back to the 1950s or earlier. Utilities started with private land mobile radio networks, added fixed data networks for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), then moved into private microwave, and now many also have private fiber-optic networks. These networks are built to be highly reliable because many utilities have black start requirements, which means that if the electric grid is out, utilities must be able to start generators to bring the grid back on line. To accomplish this, both voice and data communications are essential. This leads utilities to equip telecommunications sites with backup generators, capable of providing power for a minimum of three days, but in many cases, up to two weeks.
 
Utilities also have telecommunications towers, electrical substations, transmission and sub-transmission poles and towers. All of these are sites that could be locations for Long Term Evolution (LTE) eNodeB base stations. In addition, utilities have transmission lines and rights of way where fiber could be deployed for network backhaul.
 
Most utilities have in-house telecommunications engineers and field technicians who are responsible for the design, installation and maintenance of the systems. They bring design and engineering expertise to the table. Additionally, field service technicians are typically geographically dispersed and are on call 24/7. These field service technicians could assist in affordably maintaining the network.
 
Many utilities have rural telecommunications requirements, which can help public safety affordably build out the network in rural areas. In addition, utilities have backhaul capabilities, both fiber and microwave, that could be leveraged in rural areas to assist with the network buildout.
 
The user fees that utilities and other critical infrastructure pay would help fund the construction and operation of the nationwide network. The network will be expensive to build and operate, and without additional partners, the network will most likely be unaffordable for public-safety users. By partnering with critical infrastructure entities and developing a network that would be suitable to all users’ requirements, the network would be more economical to build.
 
Sharing Fears
Some people are concerned that allowing utilities to share the network would jeopardize public-safety users’ data during emergency situations. However, utilities have many options for how and what data is used on the network. Not all utility data requirements would be met by the network. Residential and commercial/industrial meter reading, for example, if put on the network, doesn’t need to be transmitted during disasters when the power is out. That data could be placed at a very low priority for those situations.
 
The amount of data that utilities need during emergencies is quite small, but it is extremely critical and time sensitive. For example, control messages are used to close line switches or reclosers on the electric grid and are only a couple of bytes of data, but if that data doesn’t make it through and an acknowledgement is not received, line workers lives are placed in danger. Additionally, the network will be made up of many towers with sectors on each tower. These sectors will only cover a small territory, so if there is a disaster in one area, it will most likely impact only that immediate area, affecting only a few locations, not the entire network.
 
One way to address the ability to share the network is to segment the available bandwidth, so that each entity has guaranteed bandwidth as shown in the diagram below.
 

To have a network used by both public safety and critical infrastructure, requirements for both sides need to be taken into consideration. Public safety and critical infrastructure entities must have those conversations now while network requirements are being developed.
 
The public-safety broadband network has the ability to be a great national telecommunications asset. However, multiple entities must partner to make the network affordable and to provide coverage throughout the nation. Utilities and other critical infrastructure entities can make for great partners on this network to the benefit of all users.
 

 
Kathleen Nelson, P.E., is the principal telecommunications engineer for Great River Energy in Minnesota. She has worked at Great River Energy for 19 years. Nelson is also the public policy division chair for the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC). She has been an IEEE member for 22 years.
 
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