TETRA provides secure critical comms for Luxembourg utility

CREOS, a power transmission and distribution system operator in Luxembourg, is in the process of installing a TETRA system supplied by Sepura for voice and data critical communications. James Atkinson finds out more

TETRA provides secure critical comms for Luxembourg utility

CREOS, the largest transmission and distribution system operator for gas and power in Luxembourg, is in the process of rolling out a TETRA two-way radio voice and data network supplied by Sepura.

The company employs more than 650 people and provides around 9,500km of power lines, 2,000km of gas pipelines and has some 250,000 electricity customers and 50,000 natural gas customers. So, why a TETRA radio network?

‘Utilities need resilient communication in case of a blackout. We have to be able to communicate with our people if the public telecom operators cannot provide a service,’ explains Carlo Bartocci, Head of Dispatching Department, at Creos Luxembourg S.A.

He goes on to say that when the company began to look for an alternative to its existing analogue network it first examined various alternatives including cellular CDMA, GSM and LTE options, but found there was no spectrum available for private use. What the telecoms regulator could offer, however, was some spectrum in the 400MHz band, which was suitable for a TETRA narrowband solution.

Earlier, CREOS had deployed a 10Gbps IP/MPLS (multi protocol label switching) fibre optic network, supplied by Alcatel-Lucent, connecting its high-voltage substations. ‘This was a keystone for us as it provided us with a backbone for everything including the TETRA system,’ says Bartocci.

‘All the TETRA base stations are connected to the IP/MPLS network,’ he continues, ‘so we can really assure ourselves that we have an independent telecoms network all owned and operated by us. We can interconnect to the switching gear and to the data centre and it is all certified to the maximum security level available – Tier 4.’

Bartocci explains that the SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) runs on the IP/MPLS network, as do CCTV cameras, so CREOS can monitor substations and local dispatching.

With the IP/MPLS network in place, CREOS advertised the TETRA contract in 2013 as an EU tender covering supply and implementation of the radio system, radio terminals and SCADA solution. It ended up with five shortlisted firms in the race.

MV substation challenge
‘One of the most important requirements from our side was that we had no natural frequency plan worked out. We left it to the competitors. The high-voltage substations are connected via the IP/MPLS network, so we can see what is going on there, and we will later also have a good view of the low-voltage smart meters. What is missing is the 3,000MV (medium voltage) substations,’ says Bartocci.

He adds that it would be financially very costly and time-consuming to roll out fibre to the MV substations, but with TETRA and TETRA modems CREOS could connect them far more cheaply and still get the visibility it required. Costs could be kept down as existing cabinets and other support was already installed with the Alcatel-Lucent IP/MPLS network and could be used for the TETRA equipment too.

‘All we said was we must have TETRA coverage at every 3,000MV substation in Luxembourg; i.e. all over the country, and that was the main challenge for the bidders,’ notes Bartocci.
The firms were assessed on how well they met the technical criteria, on price and on how well they understood CREOS’ requirements. ‘Sepura was the cheapest,’ reveals Bartocci, ‘but also the most flexible in its approach and the best at understanding our needs.’

The solution consists of 56 TETRA base stations with secure gateways, a network management server and central recorder, along with modems to handle the company’s smart meters and Piciorgros TETRA modems for the RTUs (remote terminal units).

‘Sepura was the only bidder that offered a direct service to us along with the Piciorgros TETRA RTU modems solution; the rest were going through system integrators. The Piciorgros modems are genius-like; they are very compact modems and house the whole works in a single unit with both analogue and digital input and output. That gives us programming facilities, so we are able to carry out firmware updates over the air interface,’ says Bartocci.

The rest of the equipment includes some 500 portable radio terminals for field staff. ‘There are also two different geographically separate data centres not owned by us, but interconnected via our own dark fibre,’ says Bartocci.

Network control
All voice and data transmissions are controlled from CREOS’ network operations centre. ‘All the servers are in the data centres and we have three dispatching systems for managing the high-, medium- and low-voltage grids and a system to control the TETRA network.’

In terms of security, Bartocci says CREOS is using the basic TETRA TEA 1 encryption and encrypted authentication capability. ‘We don’t need much more,’ he says. ‘Our philosophy is to consider all transmissions as basically insecure, so we go for end-to-end security.’

He says that Sepura also offered a very competitive package for support and training and has people not far away in Vienna (one hour’s flight from Luxembourg). ‘They speak German as do we, so yes, our people have the basic training and we can programme the mobile terminals ourselves.’

Bartocci reports that CREOS has nearly finished deploying the TETRA infrastructure. ‘We still have some base stations to implement and connect to the IP backbone, but by the beginning of summer I think all the infrastructure will be there, and by autumn the first mobile equipment will be issued to field staff. And by the end of the year the mobile equipment rollout will be complete.’

The rollout of TETRA modems and RTUs begins in June, but Bartocci says this will take more time as CREOS needs to deploy them in conjunction with the people carrying out the smart meter implementation. ‘They will also roll out equipment at the MV substations, but we are still on track,’ he affirms.

Looking ahead, does Bartocci see LTE solutions being implemented in utilities for critical communications any time soon? ‘We don’t think LTE is right for utilities, especially for mission-critical communications,’ he says. ‘You must be able to ensure you can control your substations remotely if there is a major power outage and be able to reach your field engineers – and we all know that mobile network operators are subject to power outages.’

In short, utilities need to have independent control of their communication networks at all times, which CREOS should soon have with its own integrated IP/MPLS fibre optic and TETRA networks working together.


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