Industry Voices—Madden: CBRS can prevent forest fires

Firefighters training a hose on a fire
Firefighters continue to battle wildfires in California and elsewhere. (Getty/Prathaan)

Every October, dry and windy weather comes to California. When the trees get dry, branches break off in high winds … and break the power lines. This is bad timing, because the dry, windy weather is exactly the wrong time to have a wildfire. 

This year, at least 90 people died in the California fire season, and electric utilities are squarely taking the blame. According to CBS News, Pacific Gas & Electric highlighted two power failures that occurred immediately before the fire broke out. PG&E does have systems to shut down the power for public safety reasons, but clearly their system was inadequate to accurately sense the potential for wildfire.

This year’s debacle reminds us of last year’s fire in Santa Rosa, California, which killed 44 people and resulted in a $2.5 billion settlement so far, with additional lawsuits pending. In the Santa Rosa fire, Pacific Gas & Electric was found to be liable for damages because high winds pushed trees onto power lines. Keep in mind that PG&E is responsible for trimming the trees near the power lines. 

LTE to the rescue! Sensors on the high-voltage lines can detect a broken line, and with proper communications the sensors can alert a central control system to shut down a broken power line before it hits the ground. If the power line falls for 400 milliseconds before touching the ground, this target is absolutely achievable with LTE and edge computing.

Electric utilities prefer not to rely on mobile operators and their networks. When I asked PG&E about using a mobile network, they dismissed the idea because of the risks involved; they say that they prefer to control their own equipment, to avoid all risk.

Wake up, guys! You’re not avoiding risk; you are creating risk by failing to properly monitor the grid. Get out your checkbook for the billion-dollar settlements that will inevitably result from the 2018 fires. And no money can compensate for the crispy residents of Butte County.

Looking forward, CBRS can make a difference. Soon, PG&E will be able to buy a priority access license (PAL) to keep tabs on the grid. They don’t have to work with mobile operators because they can control their own spectrum. And industry suppliers will line up at their door with innovative backhaul products and low-cost hardware.

What about 5G? The 5G standard allows for Ultra-Reliable, Low Latency Communications (URLLC). If we can shut down the power in less than 50 milliseconds total, then the safety margin would be even greater. There’s nothing stopping PG&E from implementing a 5G network after they buy a PAL in 2020. Edge computing nodes in strategic locations would speed up the decision.

Many of the early applications for URLLC have been disappointing; robotic surgery has become a joke in the industry, and the connection between self-driving cars and URLLC has not become clear. But this application is clear and widespread, with a strong ROI. PG&E, I encourage you to get involved in the CBRS auction.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.