It was about 40 years ago, and I was taking Amtrak back to Washington after visiting Bell Labs in New Jersey. My head was exploding, so to speak, over the wondrous things I’d seen at the facility.
Particularly, optical fiber fascinated me; that a conduit thinner than a human hair could carry far more voice and data than a great coaxial cable was a thing of awe. “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper,” as W.B. Yeats wrote.
On the train, I thought about the three industries that had enthralled me since childhood: railroads, newspapers, and electricity. What struck me was that they were all rooted in the 19th century. While they were all tentatively glomming onto computing and the new technologies, they remained rooted in technology of another time. These big and beautiful cats hadn’t changed their spots.
Railroads and passenger trains haven’t progressed well, retaining their 19th-century business concepts. Hundreds of newspapers are dying, having failed to adjust to the digital age.
However, electric utilities have changed: Nowadays they get much less of their product from boiling water to turn turbines and more of it from gas turbines, wind turbines, and solar panels. The goads have been technology, changing economics, and environmental imperatives.
But there is another force at work: Utilities are beginning to be data-driven. Wind turbines and solar panels may be the outward signs of change, but internally data is a mighty force.
Data is said to be the new oil. The world now runs on it.
Utilities entered the big data world when they introduced smart meters. But that is only part of the rising role of data to them.
As we move toward smart cities, which purists like to call future cities, we’re seeing data take command. Data will determine traffic fluidity, sewage management, health care delivery, and drive efficiency in every nook of the future city. Electricity is fundamental to smart cities, and its resiliency will become paramount.
The data flow for utilities comes from smart meters as well as tens of thousands of sensors across their systems, guaranteeing the integrity.
But sensors need reporting pathways that will remain open even when everything else is failing. Collected data must be transported and applied. For electric utilities, that is especially critical in crises.
The wildfires in the West are causing havoc with state officials having as much difficulty finding out what is happening as the customers and many employees of the utilities. This havoc would be dramatically worse in the event of grid failure from natural disaster or malign interference.
Data needs to be actionable instantly, with near-zero latency. That is the mission of private communications networks.
Anticipated Data Boom
Utilities need to incorporate data into their infrastructure, says Robert Schwartz, president and CEO of Anterix, a broadband private network innovator.
Schwartz knows from whence he speaks: He is a veteran of the telecommunications scene, having been an executive at Nextel Communications, the company which pioneered the push-to-talk cellphone in the 1990s. Nextel’s esteemed co-founder, Morgan O’Brien, now serves as Anterix executive chairman.
Anterix has anticipated the boom in data and has accumulated a large holding of the 900 MHz spectrum on which to build private, discrete communications for utilities, oil refiners and other critical industries. These networks are LTE, also called 4G, and are designed to survive disruptions which might bring down telephone networks or communications tied to the internet or to traditional telephone carriers.
“When all else has failed, these broadband networks will continue to operate,” according to Schwartz. The secret is that they are totally free of all other networks, including the electric grid.
This is a point made by the Southern States Energy Board (SSEB), a quasi-official body representing 16 states. A recent resolution from the board not only endorses Anterix’s broadband use but also lauds it for its survivability.
A quasi-private network can be provided by a traditional telephone carrier (and there is talk of that with 5G), but it remains part of that system, therefore vulnerable to any disruption of it.
Backbone of Future Grid
Schwartz likes to point out that a utility using a broadband private network can know of a line break and de-energize it in just under 1.4 seconds or before the line hits the ground. The value of this kind of data reporting and the ability to use private broadband to act on the data stands out in a time of climate stress and the growing complexity of distributed energy resources (DER). These might include power from rooftop solar, windmills and even, in future, power fed back from electric vehicles. One consultant suggests the broadband private networks will provide the backbone of the emerging grid of the future.
Anterix and its survivable infrastructure system has been on a roll lately. In May, the Federal Communications Commission sanctioned its use of the 900 MHz spectrum for private broadband networks. Recently the concept has been endorsed by a number of utilities, including the Southern Company
The Midwest utility Ameren is planning a network and has signed a letter of intent with Anterix.
Private utility networks also offer a way of bringing broadband to underserved rural areas. When building out its private network along what is known as “the middle mile,” a utility would simply lay double optical fiber lines or do the equivalent in wireless transmission. This would then be leased to the local broadband operator, saving duplicative construction costs.
The great virtue of a private network using the 900 MHz spectrum can be summed up in these words: control, low latency, separateness, and sustainability.
Data is now part of the utility infrastructure, ineffably so.