Utilities, tech firms form alliance for private industrial IoT networks

utility power electricity pole (Pixabay / SnapwireSnaps )
The Utility Broadband Alliance wants to help utility companies develop private broadband networks for industrial IoT. (Pixabay / SnapwireSnaps)

A group of companies representing telecom equipment vendors, spectrum licensees and utilities have formed an alliance to advance the development of private broadband networks for energy providers. The Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA) includes 13 founding companies that want to drive modernization efforts in the nation’s grid and other industrial IoT applications.

Due to their unique communications requirements utility companies have always used a multitude of networks, sometimes as many as a dozen, to provide services and maintain operations, according to Morgan O'Brien, CEO of pdvWireless, one of the founding companies of the alliance.

“We’re not talking about replacing everything with one, but we are talking about the one that gives the greatest level of control to the utility over the communications,” he said. “These are the communications, which we must know are being delivered in the right time at the right place, and only a utility can make that judgment.”

The communications requirements of utility providers are similar to that of public safety and other critical services, according to O’Brien. “Being critical infrastructure, having safety of life and property features, they ought to have the same exclusive spectrum,” he said. “They don’t ask for it as control freaks,” but rather a need to determine and provide proper latency and prioritized access as they see fit.

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While utility companies could use private LTE networks, such as those being proposed by UBBA, to power smart meters, the alliance’s objective is primarily driven by mission critical communications requirements. “Many features of wireless that the utilities use, smart meters being one of them, will not require this kind of network,” O’Brien said. There are still many cases where a commercial, consumer-oriented network will suffice.

“The Tier 1 carriers because of the huge amounts of spectrum they have, the number of customers they’re serving and the deployments they have, will have a robust business in industrial IoT, no doubt about it. But their architecture is more primarily consumer oriented and their point of view is consumer oriented,” O’Brien said. “They don’t have any industrial critical infrastructure sense. That’s why public safety wanted to have their own [network]” in the form of FirstNet.

The same benefits and needs apply to other infrastructure such as railroads, oil and gas companies, according to O’Brien. “There’s plenty of verticals, we just think utilities are first among equals in having immediate need and also having access to lots of capital to be able to do this because it’s very expensive. It’s far more expensive than calling up Verizon or AT&T and subscribing,” he said.

“The way to have the absolute best, more durable, reliable, resilient network is to build it yourself on your own spectrum. And that’s what we’re proposing. It’s very expensive, but that’s what we’re proposing,” O’Brien said.

UBBA’s other founding members include Ameren, Burns & McDonnell, Cisco Systems, Encore Networks, Ericsson, Federated Wireless, General Electric, Motorola Solutions, Multi-Tech Systems, National Grid, Sierra Wireless and Southern Linc.