Utilities are at the forefront of a pivotal transformation. The demand for real-time data and reliable, efficient services continues to rise, so the crucial role of high-speed wireless internet in empowering utility operations cannot be overstated. A robust and fast digital infrastructure has become a non-negotiable requirement.
Deploying a private cellular network addresses various challenges that utilities encounter today. These encompass requirements for secure and reliable communications to monitor and control critical infrastructure, ensuring grid resilience in times of natural disasters or emergencies, integrating renewable energy sources into the grid, optimizing energy distribution, and facilitating efficient operations through smart grid functionalities for power plants, substations, and infrastructure.
Many utilities are investing in Private LTE networks and utilizing 900 MHz spectrum for use cases requiring secure wide cellular coverage in large geographic areas. A notable advancement in this field is the emergence of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS). CBRS, a shared lightly licensed spectrum band, that empowers diverse industries, including utilities, to harness the potential of high-density & high throughput private 4G and 5G connectivity, leading to enhanced operations and superior service delivery. The two spectrums complement each other to address wide coverage and high data capacity requirements of smart utilities.
What is CBRS?
CBRS is a shared spectrum technology that grants diverse industries and organizations access to wireless connectivity for a wide range of applications. Rather than having to rely on unlicensed spectrum-based Wi-Fi, which typically is best for short-range uses, or a public cellular network run by a Mobile Network Operator (MNO), which often has poor coverage in remote areas and service quality designed for all subscribers, CBRS operates at the mid-band 3.5 GHz frequency range, a band noted for its ability to carry significant data traffic over substantial distances.
CBRS employs a unique three-tiered sharing framework to distribute the spectrum among incumbent users, priority access license (PAL) holders, and no-cost general authorized access (GAA) users. By implementing advanced spectrum management technologies, CBRS facilitates efficient sharing and allocation of the available spectrum, ensuring reliable and secure wireless communication. This flexible and innovative approach of CBRS presents exciting opportunities for industries like utilities, enabling them to optimize their operations, improve service delivery, and unlock the full potential of intelligent infrastructure.
The CBRS PALs grant holders exclusive access to a portion of the spectrum for a specified geographic area and time period. They were auctioned off in a 2020 FCC proceeding, and for the first time, enterprises other than telecommunications service providers were able to purchase licenses. Notable utility purchasers of PALs include South California Edison Company, that bought 20 PALs in one county; SDG&G, that purchased three PALs in two counties; and Alabama Power Co., that snagged 271 PALs over 103 counties.
The Benefits of Adding CBRS to Utilities
Integrating smart utilities’ digital infrastructure with CBRS-based private networks brings many benefits that revolutionize how these essential services operate. Firstly, CBRS-based private 4G/5G networks provide utilities with security measures based on the same robust 3GPP standards as public 4G and 5G networks, ensuring critical infrastructure protection. Utilities can safeguard their operations against potential cyber threats and unauthorized access by leveraging a dedicated and secure private cellular network.
Secondly, CBRS-based private 4G/5G networks offer mission-critical reliability, allowing utilities to maintain real-time monitoring and control of their systems even in challenging environments. This reliability ensures uninterrupted communication and enables utilities to respond promptly to emergencies, minimizing downtime and maximizing efficiency.
Another advantage of CBRS for utilities is predictable performance. Using the CBRS band, utilities can allocate network resources efficiently and prioritize applications based on their specific requirements. This predictability ensures consistent and reliable connectivity for mission-critical operations, enabling utilities to deliver reliable services to customers.
Furthermore, CBRS-based networks provide high capacity, enabling utilities to transmit and receive large volumes of data seamlessly. This capacity supports data-intensive applications such as predictive maintenance systems. Utilities can leverage this high capacity to enhance operations, improve decision-making processes, and drive efficiency gains.
Other benefits include the reduction of O&M costs, the flexibility for adding Internet of Things (IoT) applications and future use cases, and simplification for protection against cyber threats.
Unlocking Potential: Use Cases of CBRS in Utility Operations
CBRS-based private networks bring a wide array of compelling use cases that have the potential to transform the operations of utilities.
- Utilities can offer wireless broadband services, such as with a Fixed Wireless Access network, to areas where traditional operators fail to provide sufficient coverage and capacity, easily upselling to existing customers.
- Vehicles equipped with mobile routers can connect with local devices, collecting information more quickly and accurately than traditional manual methods. This capability is handy for maintenance crews, enabling them to identify and resolve issues efficiently.
- Wind farms and other remote locations can benefit from predictive maintenance. Utilities can proactively identify potential issues, optimize performance, and reduce downtime by analyzing real-time data from sensors and HD cameras.
- CBRS enables utilities to use VR technology to provide real-time guidance to field technicians, enhancing their efficiency and reducing downtime during repairs and maintenance operations.
- CBRS supports high-bandwidth video surveillance systems, enhancing security measures for utility infrastructure and ensuring quick response times to potential threats.
- CBRS enables real-time monitoring of water and gas pipelines, allowing utilities to identify leaks promptly, conserve resources, and minimize wastage.
- CBRS enables utilities to deploy sensors and monitoring systems for various environmental issues. Protection against wildfires and other natural disasters can be a significant impetus for utilities, with the threat of liability lawsuits an ongoing concern.
Private Cellular Network Utility Owners
There are a number of utility companies around the world that have deployed private cellular networks, including UK Power Networks and Western Distribution. Some that are using CBRS include:
- The Illinois Electric Cooperative (IEC) has deployed a CBRS-based Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) LTE network to underserved rural communities, providing broadband coverage to those previously unable to receive high-speed internet.
- San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) is using its three CBRS PALs for smart metering, detecting faulty circuits, providing mission-critical push-to-talk functionality, and supporting supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).
- Like IEC, Newport Utilities uses a CBRS-based FWA network to provide broadband access to underserved areas in rural Tennessee.
Would a CBRS Network Benefit You?
To determine whether a CBRS-based private network aligns with a utility’s objectives and operational landscape, several key questions should be considered, such as:
- What use cases does the utility plan to implement?
- What are the coverage and capacity requirements?
- Is there a need for secure and dedicated connectivity?
- What are the future network plans? How flexible and scalable does a network need to be?
- Are there geographical or topographical constraints to consider?
- What are the cost considerations? Besides the spectrum, which could be low or no cost with CBRS, there are also equipment procurement, installation, and ongoing network management expenses. Is there a favorable business case?
- What devices will connect to the network? Examples include IoT sensors, tablets, customer premise equipment (CPE), mobile handsets, HD cameras, Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) devices, and vehicle and fleet management systems.
The integration of CBRS-based private networks into utilities holds immense potential for transforming the management and optimization of vital services. CBRS networks empower utilities to safeguard critical infrastructure, maintain real-time monitoring and control, and allocate network resources efficiently. From video technology to predictive maintenance in remote locations and real-time guidance for field technicians using VR technology, CBRS-based networks enable utilities to optimize their processes, reduce downtime, enhance security measures, and conserve resources.
The fusion of technology and utilities will continue to drive innovation and advancement. As the CBRS-based private networks adoption rate grows and evolves, utilities can leverage its capabilities further, integrate new applications, and explore novel use cases. The ongoing development of CBRS and its integration into utility operations will undoubtedly shape the future landscape, improving efficiency, reliability, and sustainability.
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