Electric utilities eye private LTE, 5G for digital transformations

Electric utilities are — often by their own admission — not early adopters of new technology, but increasingly they are starting to explore how private 4G LTE networks, and eventually 5G, can benefit their operations.

That much was clear from a Friday briefing hosted by the United States Energy Association (USEA) about the impact of LTE and 5G on the electric utility sector. For example, panel member Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of New York Power Authority (NYPA), said his company is testing wireless technology as a means for streaming data between sensors and monitoring power in thousands of connected buildings throughout the state.

Specifically, NYPA recently started working with Anterix, the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum licenses in the U.S., to pilot a private LTE network in its Gilboa, New York, hydroelectric plant. The utility’s use cases for the project include providing wireless connectivity to NYPA work crews, as well as remote monitoring of power facilities via drones.

“I’m excited to say that just last week we flew a wireless drone to inspect a remote line,” said Quiniones, who added that NYPA sees opportunities to use private LTE connectivity to help it predict and avoid failures of its power and distribution facilities.

“We see this as a multi-flow system” which can help NYPA dramatically increase its ability to apply analytics to vast amounts of data generated by the utility’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, he said. This, in turn, could help NYPA drive greater capacity utilization across its facilities.

Quiniones said that in addition to working with Anterix on 900 MHz private LTE, the company also is exploring what it could do at different frequencies, including 2.4 and 3.5 GHz, and 600 MHz.

As the nation’s largest state public power utility, NYPA might be in a better position than many smaller utilities to leverage private LTE. NYPA embarked on an initiative several years ago to become “the nation’s first end-to-end digital utility,” Quiniones said.

As a rule, however, electric utilities’ concern for the reliability and security of their systems traditionally has painted them as followers, rather than leaders, when it comes to adopting new technologies.

Andres Carvallo, CEO and founder of CMG Consulting and former CIO of Texas power authority Austin Energy, said during the USEA briefing: “Utilities are not usually on the bleeding edge of anything because they are in the business of delivering 24/7 reliability, so when a utility does something [with new technology] it needs to do it perfectly. The challenges become how do you deploy it, how do you pay for it, and how far do you go with it?”

Security is another major concern, perhaps causing utilities to hesitate about using 4G and 5G, technologies more commonly identified with consumer mobile broadband. However, the ability to create private LTE networks should mitigate such concerns, according to Morgan O’Brien, the one-time Nextel co-founder who is now executive chairman of Anterix.

"A private LTE system can be designed from the ground-up for the needs of a particular industry so it can be more secure. It’s not like the public internet," O’Brien explained during the USEA briefing.

O’Brien said Anterix is in discussions with about 40 utilities on the topic of private LTE, and added that the company’s approach is to be spectrum-agnostic. It aims to sign up utilities to private LTE network leases of anywhere from 20 to 40 years long. Such leases cover not only the 4G LTE present, but also the near-future of 5G, and maybe even 6G.

If utilities stay true to their traditional pace of new technology adoption, it’s likely not many of them are thinking about 5G right now, let alone 6G. But 5G’s strengths may play directly to their needs.

“4G is 50 Mbps and 50 milliseconds latency," Carvallo said. "5G is 1,000 Mbps and 10 milliseconds latency. With that latency, you can monitor devices at greater scale and support synchronization that meets the needs of utilities. And with 5G, you can have your intelligence in the cloud,” potentially changing how utilities operate their grids and manage their capacities, and at what costs.