Roadmap to a 4G communications future for utilities

Both voice and data communications are essential to the operation of utilities, including power generation and distribution companies. Mike Norfield, CEO, TTG explains to James Atkinson how they can migrate to a 4G broadband future

Roadmap to a 4G communications future for utilities

Like a number of sectors that rely on critical communications, utilities such as power generation and distribution organisations and water companies are looking to see what benefits a move to 4G LTE broadband technology might give them.

Team Telecom Group (TTG) is one critical communications supplier that has worked closely with the utilities sector, chiefly through its subsidiary Simoco Group. ‘Simoco is a systems integrator for the utilities sector,’ says Mike Norfield, CEO at TTG. ‘But some years ago I could see communications technology was moving towards IP-based solutions, so I said let’s do away with switches and move to a distributed architecture.’

The result was the Simoco Xfin solution, developed around 2004-5, which features a digital IP backbone on an MPT1327 analogue trunked system. ‘I reckoned the utilities would roll out their own IP networks and run LAN, telephone and radio systems over it and I said that is what we need to do. The idea was that when the next digital radio standard came along, be it DMR or whatever, we would be able to run it over our existing IP solution,’ explains Norfield.

Several UK power distribution companies, including WPD (Western Power Distribution) and SSE, have deployed the Xfin fully distributed IP architecture with analogue radios at the front end.

Simoco has since designed a digital IP front end with its DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) Xd range. ‘We’d already done half the work,’ points out Norfield, ‘and we are
the only company with a fully integrated, fully IP, no switch architecture, and we now have the front end IP voice too.’

It’s all about LTE
Narrowband land mobile radio (LMR) systems such as MPT1327, TETRA and more recently DMR, have generally been the answer for utility communications up to now, certainly for voice. But now Norfield acknowledges that everyone is talking about LTE, with its proponents insisting it is the answer to all the future communications needs of utilities, transport and the like.

‘I have no doubt after seeing what the likes of Huawei is doing in Shenzhen that over the next 10 years 4G and maybe later 5G will be integrated into this media. But don’t forget that before then many organisations still have to migrate from analogue to digital radio over the next five to 10 years,’ says Norfield.

His point is that technology solutions are needed during that migration period to make the transition easy when the time comes for organisations to finally make the switch. ‘We can dream of smart cities and smart grids, but first utilities need to scope out what is most important for them over the next 10 years. After all, they have to buy in long cycles and what they are allowed to spend on capital assets is determined by the regulator,’ says Norfield.

‘We work with these companies and say to them; you need to understand what you have, map what you have and what you will need to establish your road map to LTE if it happens.’
Norfield stresses that despite all the data benefits that LTE broadband can provide, one of the most critical applications for any utility is still voice.

‘A lot of utilities have moved to using voice for their critical needs,’ says Norfield. ‘Because if the power goes off you lose the mobile phone networks, so the utilities do not want to rely on them for voice. They have to be able to identify where the problem is and fix it.

‘But to do that the energy distribution controllers need to talk to the field engineers. It is not just important to everyone to have the power back on as soon as possible; the utilities get fined if they don’t get the network up and running again in good time.’

He adds that WPD is now one of the top companies for quality of service, and a key attributor of that is the technical communications investment it has made. ‘Voice is important to them,’ insists Norfield, ‘they cannot afford to lose it.’

Low band data
There are other important requirements besides voice, one of which is the provision of mission-critical lowband data services. How to get data from unmanned remote terminal units (RTUs) back to the control centre?

‘The introduction of new environmental laws means utilities have to provide more information on what is going on in their network, such as flow, capacity and volume. They need to be able to control flow, switch things on and off remotely, and so on. The arrival of wind farms and solar power with their variable energy flows has made this a much bigger issue for them now,’ observes Norfield.

Running RTUs over SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems can give a patchy performance, so Simoco has developed DMR-based RTUs. ‘Utilities can build a resilient IP network and run our DMR Xd radio system over the network and not have to worry about unlicensed or cellular solutions.’

He says that RTUs and SCADA systems transmit low band data, which can be comfortably handled by a narrowband system such as DMR. ‘Sure, you can run voice, video and data over LTE,’ acknowledges Norfield, ‘but if you are a utility, can you get the spectrum to build a private LTE network over your whole area?

‘And if you can, what will the cost be?’ he continues. ‘LTE is still a switch-based technology, so it is complex. And you have to build a core network before you even think about the RAN (radio access network) side.

‘And then, have you got all the applications and devices to enable low-band SCADA over LTE?’ asks Norfield. ‘There is not an abundance of applications out there, or RTUs or rugged devices that will work over LTE at the moment; LTE is just not there yet.’
So if a utility feels it needs broadband data applications now, what is it to do? Simoco is trialling some small, localised LTE solutions.

‘We can build a core LTE network at a utility’s major assets such as power stations and substations. We put in an LTE base station, which allows a utility to run its voice, data and broadband applications over it, such as workflow management systems and the like,’ explains Norfield.

What this gives the utility is parallel low band and broadband data networks. The low band network runs the mission-critical voice and low band data applications, and the broadband one transmits higher data rate applications, such as video. And if the localised LTE network goes down, the utility still has its low-cost, mission-critical voice and low band data network in place.

Return on investment
Norfield points out that LTE networks cost tens of millions of pounds, so organisations need to look carefully at the return on investment and ascertain whether it makes good business sense to deploy one. Parallel networks with localised LTE at key assets provide a way to help utilities gain access to broadband applications during the migration to a potential full broadband future, should they choose to follow that roadmap.

The UK is moving its emergency services onto a 4G commercial mobile network for political reasons. Norfield says utilities, transport and others are doing it for business reasons, but they all face the same challenges.
It might not be the best idea to jump straight in; instead, organisations might be better served by testing out concepts, finding out what the hurdles are, and then figuring out the cost benefit analysis based on some hard facts from trials.

‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating,’ says Norfield, who explains that Simoco is working with Huawei and two utilities on some LTE trials. ‘You’ve got a low band voice and data network, where DMR two-way radios can talk to LTE devices, running in parallel with a broadband network.

‘This allows the utility to look at what applications they think they’ll get the most benefit from and we can then bid a return on investment solution based on the needs they’ve established. So, we have to stop talking about the dream of LTE and actually take a look at it. Yes, the vendors have the technology, but no one is building the user case yet. In short, we need to find out – does it pay?’ asks Norfield.

Confidential trials
The trials being carried out by Simoco, Huawei and the two utilities have been endorsed by Ofcom, but are still confidential at the moment. However, in outline it involves putting up an LTE base station next to a PMR one and checking the performance – is there any interference, for example?

‘The utilities are scoping out what applications they want to put over the system,’ reveals Norfield, ‘and then we will run short two- to three-month trials and then write up the results. We hope to be able to show that you can deploy LTE in this way and that it will provide a good return on investment.

‘That is the dilemma we face now,’ continues Norfield. ‘The technology is there, but no one knows how best to use it or whether it is worth investing in yet. So, we hope the trials will give us a better idea and that we’ll be able to say: here’s the cost of PMR + LTE + the cost of these apps. This is how they perform and this is what we think the probable overall cost is. From that we hope the utility can ascertain whether it pays.’

In Norfield’s view, many sectors besides public safety want resilient, always available, robust and secure communications networks. Yes, you can buy a contract from a mobile operator, but until LTE networks are 100% resilient, available and robust, it is best to retain private PMR-based networks and run LTE broadband ones in parallel at key assets.

In the meantime, Simoco and Huawei are looking to prove the LTE case for the utilities sector with the results out later this year.

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