[Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we will highlight sessions at the June 17-21 Telecom & Technology conference. Registration information is here!]
National trade association executives, industry leaders, state policymakers, and more will address UTC core members, vendors, and other attendees at the annual Telecom & Technology conference to discuss how utility communications networks are not only critical for day-to-day reliability and safety, but also to the industry’s transition to become more efficient, resilient, and responsive to consumer needs.
During the Wednesday, June 19, luncheon general session, a diverse group of industry stakeholders will give their views on how utility communications networks can enable this transformation.
The session will begin with keynote addresses from Oncor CIO Malia Hodges and EDP Distribuição, SA, of Portugal CEO Joao Torres.
These presentations will be followed by a panel discussion that will focus on the utility industry’s transformation to Utility 2.0, a more resilient, efficient, reliable, and responsive system. Panelists will discuss the challenges facing the industry during this transition, particularly as new technologies like energy storage, rooftop solar, and other new distributed energy resources are deployed. Panelists will also discuss the kinds of safety concerns utilities need to consider as demands on their infrastructure increase, along with how these changes will impact the consumers paying the bills.
Confirmed panelists for this session are:
UTC Board of Directors member Michael Quinn of our host utility Oncor will moderate.
We will also be giving out numerous UTC awards. You will not want to miss this session!
Registration is open now!
Electric utilities use telecommunications networks to run mission-critical functions necessary to safely, reliably, and efficiently deliver electricity across the U.S., and their bandwidth needs are growing. These networks provide utilities with essential functions and give them visibility into the status of their generation, transmission, and distribution assets, a new survey of utilities serving approximately half of the country finds.
The survey, performed by the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), covers all sizes and ownership types of utilities, from large investor-owned companies serving millions to smaller, publicly and cooperatively owned utilities. Although each utility surveyed has its own unique needs, every single one reported that communications are essential to its purpose.
“When most people think of electricity infrastructure, they usually think of power plants, transmission towers, power lines, and poles,” said UTC President and CEO Joy Ditto. “However, as this survey makes clear, utilities deploy a wide variety of telecommunications networks throughout their service territories to underpin the reliable, safe, and efficient delivery of electricity. These networks provide critical situational awareness, safety functions, and allow crews to perform repair and restoration after storms of all magnitude.”
UTC worked with the Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, and the American Public Power Association, representing publicly owned utilities, to bolster the survey results. In all, the responding utilities serve approximately 50% of residential electric meters in the U.S. A few Canadian utilities responded as well.
The survey found that utilities’ bandwidth needs are growing as they modernize their systems and invest in communications networks. “[G]rid modernization and streaming video drive this medium-term growth in bandwidth consumption,” the survey finds. “Future bandwidth requirements are based upon current grid modernization projects, typically having a 5‑10-year outlook, so bandwidth projections can be considered stable. Thus, a private network with a known capital and operational expenditure may present a stronger financial case than relying upon carrier-provided services.”
Importantly, most of the surveyed utilities have chosen to build their own communications networks, relying on the large commercial carriers only for certain segments, if at all. This is because commercial providers have historically not provided the level of reliability and coverage needed by electric companies. Indeed, the survey found that three-fourths of the respondents owned 80% or more of their network, while only one small public power utility surveyed reported owning less than 40% of its telecommunications network.
“Whereas telecommunications carriers design their networks as profit centers, utilities’ private networks are designed primarily for availability, and are treated as a cost of doing business,” the survey found. “Utilities will, from time to time, use carrier-provided services when those services better fit a specific use case, such as remote locations where build-out of a private network cannot be cost-justified.”
Utilities transmit volumes of data across their communications networks. This data includes teleprotection, a technology which minimizes the impact and duration of faults on a transmission line, distribution automation, alarms, and video surveillance.
Additionally, utilities use multiple forms of communications technologies. When performing routine maintenance and restoring service after a severe storm, utility crews rely on land-mobile radio systems to communicate. Because of utilities’ investments in back-up power, these systems are highly reliable and resilient and typically remain operational during prolonged power outages.
Utilities also deploy fiber lines along their substations, although for some smaller utilities, fiber can be cost-prohibitive. In locations where fiber is unaffordable or impossible to deploy, due to geography and/or expense, nearly all utilities turn to wireless technology, which relies on radiofrequency spectrum to function. Perhaps the most popular, reliable, and cost-effective wireless transmission is done via microwave. Microwave communications are wireless communications delivered in narrow beams from antennae devices pointed directly at each other (point-to-point). Utilities use microwave communications for outage management, energy management, teleprotection, and smart metering, among other functions.
Utilities prefer to buy licensed spectrum, which offers clearer data transmission over greater distances than unlicensed spectrum, the survey found. Licensed spectrum is more expensive, however. More than half of the responding utilities stated that 75% or more of their wireless telecommunications networks use licensed spectrum. Nearly one-fourth of the responding utilities said that licensed spectrum accounts for 95% or more of their wireless telecommunications networks.
Cybersecurity is the chief challenge cutting across the utility and telecommunications industries, a panel of industry leaders and state regulators said last week.
“Electric utilities are on the front lines of international warfare today,” said Duane Highley, CEO of Tri-State Generation and Transmission and co-chair of the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC).
Mr. Highley was one of several officials speaking on a panel last week at the New Mexico State University Center for Public Utilities’ annual Current Issues conference in Santa Fe, NM.
In a session on Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure, Mr. Highley, along with representatives from the water, electric, and telecommunications industries and three state utility commissioners discussed how cybersecurity, supply chain, and related threats remain among the top challenges facing each sector.
Gurdeep Kaur, Chief Information Security Officer at PSEG, discussed the important work of the ESCC and the Electricity Industry Sharing and Analysis Center (E-ISAC). Both are critical to shoring up security of the grid and building relationships and trust between utilities and the federal government, Ms. Kaur said.
Although it sounds cliché, cybersecurity is everyone’s responsibility, Ms. Kaur said. She noted that phishing attempts—emails designed to fool readers into clicking an infected link—remain the most common and successful attack vector. Phishing emails are becoming more targeted and sophisticated, she added.
Panelists also discussed the challenge of ensuring that smaller utilities, notably water utilities, are armed and ready to defend their systems. Nick Santillo, Chief Digital Infrastructure and Security Officer at American Water, said the water industry is pushing a “big education aspect” as part of its cybersecurity outreach.
UTC attended the conference and is a member of the Center for Public Utilities’ Advisory Council, which is responsible for developing the program each year.
Please contact the Public Policy Team with any questions.
Although rural broadband deployment remains a top and vexing priority for industry and state policymakers, at least one state commissioner—Chairman Brandon Presley of the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC)—feels like his state will soon unleash a wave of broadband development.
Mississippi electric cooperatives are now “uncuffed” and will soon be able to offer broadband services to their customers and beyond, Chairman Presley said during last week’s New Mexico State University Center for Public Utilities’ annual Current Issues conference in Santa Fe, NM.
Chairman Presley was a top advocate of a new Mississippi law which lets the state’s electric cooperatives provide external broadband services to their customers and to those outside their service territories.
The “landmark” law, as he called it, requires the cooperatives to file cost-benefit analyses for providing broadband to the Mississippi PSC in the near future, he said.
While Chairman Presley is optimistic about bridging the rural broadband gap in Mississippi, a panel of telecommunications industry officials seemed less so. Federal funding opportunities like the Connect America Fund are important initiatives to get more broadband out to unserved areas, panelists said, but challenges over mapping, determining need, and questions surrounding the viability of satellite providers to be real change agents in rural broadband remain.
Karen Charles Peterson, Commissioner with the Massachusetts Department of Telecommunications and Cable and Chair of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Committee on Telecommunications, said mapping broadband deployment is a “huge” issue that is critical to targeting the parts of the U.S. in need of broadband services.
However, David Danner, Chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, noted that current mapping done by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other entities “are horribly inaccurate.”
Chairman Peterson, also a member of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC), said the FCC should reach out more to states in order to improve mapping. She also encouraged the FCC to put more state representatives on the BDAC itself, something she admitted is “an uphill battle.”
UTC attended the Current Issues conference and is a member of the Center for Public Utilities’ Advisory Council. Please contact the UTC Public Policy Team with questions.
A snapshot of upcoming UTC webinars, events, and conference calls