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Power utilities are in the midst of a

significant transformation as they gear up

to meet tomorrow’s challenges. New

approaches and technologies, including

distributed energy resources such as

renewables, storage and microgrids, are

putting new demands on the electrical

distribution system. Shifting loads and

fluctuating generation from renewables will

require real-time adjustment without

operator intervention.

Automation of the distribution network

will be critical to this transformation. This

will require the collection and analysis of

data, modeling of the distribution

operations for automated decision-making,

and the relaying of decisions to utility

control centers. None of this is possible

without a robust wireless communications

network in the last mile or field area

network (FAN). The mission critical nature

of these operations means that the FAN

cannot be subject to interference from

other wireless devices or line-of-sight

issues. It should be able to handle high

bandwidth communications, provide

redundant paths and be built on open

industry standards.

The good news is that unlike some

other technologies critical to our energy

future, such as storage solutions,

networking technology has already evolved

sufficiently to meet the needs of the energy

industry. 4G wireless technology, or LTE,

has already been adopted worldwide by

telecom operators to meet the needs of

literally billions of mobile customers. The

technology is extremely robust, reliable

and scalable.

There are many types of

communications systems used by power

utilities in the FAN today. In the wireless

space, these are typically either some kind

of wireless mesh using unlicensed

spectrum and subject to interference, or

point-to-point microwave subject to line-of-

sight issues. The interference issue will

only increase as the number of Internet of

Things (IoT) devices proliferates. These

technologies also tend to be non-redundant

and short range. Many are also proprietary,

single vendor solutions that lock the utility

in, limiting its ability to choose the best

options and embrace new applications as

they develop.

Currently, most FANs use a mix of

these older communications technologies

to cover different applications and their

associated field devices such as metering

infrastructure, quality monitoring or

protection. Many of them are based on

centralized management systems such as

SCADA. Some distribution automation

applications, in contrast, will require control

and processing to be distributed. More

frequent monitoring to handle rapid

variances in load and generation will also

demand higher bandwidths for data and

control traffic. In other words, automating

distribution and converging all traffic on a

single network demands higher bandwidth

and a more reliable network than these

technologies can provide.

LTE is well suited to meet this need. It

can operate in numerous frequency bands,

accommodates different channel sizes and

can adapt to different spectrum allocation

regimes. While it has been largely deployed

in public networks, private LTE networks

are possible, either through the use of

dedicated utility spectrum (e.g. 450 MHz in

Austria and Hungary), or by partnering

with mobile providers that can provide

dedicated spectrum (e.g. AT&T in the US).

The highly regulated nature of LTE

spectrum ensures that interference is not

an issue. LTE also provides sufficient

bandwidth, even for video applications. It is

highly scalable and redundant, and avoids

any line-of-sight issues common with other


Some distributed automation

applications adopt a decentralized approach

to processing and control, referred to as

distributed computing. A local computing

device or server, for instance, might

acquire line data from voltage/current

sensors to control and operate local

switches. The response times have to be

very short, sometimes even in tens of

milliseconds, which is uniquely supported

by LTE. Atop LTE, IP/MPLS provides the

necessary quality of service and security

for connectivity to both distributed and

centralized processing resources. IP/MPLS

provides high resiliency, security and the

versatility to control network performance

levels per application.

Beyond distribution automation, private

LTE networks will allow the consolidation

and convergence of many disparate

communication systems now in use,

including mobile field operations. With its

high bandwidth capacity, LTE will enable

seamless integration between back office

and mobile workforces, even using video

for collaboration between on-site and back

office personnel.

Society’s pressing need to address

climate change is creating new regulatory

and market conditions, as well as leading to

exciting new innovations in energy