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As utilities and municipalities continue to build out their grids, the technology choice connecting the "middle mile" to networked devices will become increasingly critical. Unfortunately, they are faced with options that leave them caught between two conflicting imperatives. On one hand, they want to deploy a private smart grid network that can be tightly controlled. On the other, utilities desire the simplicity and availability of public operator networks.
4G and the Middle Mile
Utilities and municipalities are looking to enhance the way power is delivered and consumed, in order to improve efficiencies, drive down costs and enable integration of renewable energy sources.. However, the majority of the current smart grid network infrastructure was built with just one application in mind - reading meters - and cannot meet the long term bandwidth, low latency and QoS (Quality Of Service) that new services will add to the network.
The middle mile segment of the network, plays a dominant role of connecting multiple Smart Grid sub networks, such as Smart Metering Neighborhood Area Network (NAN), Field Area Network (FAN) covering distribution automation devices and mobile work force, and Substation Automation backhauling. However, the mesh networks or PLC (Power Line Communication) covering the last mile (from homes to pole tops) and the connected devices on the neighborhood area network (NAN), is currently traversing narrowband networks with rather high latencies. Unfortunately, this limited connectivity is not suited to flexibly address the requirements of the new era of services slated to hit the smart grid in the next five to 10 years.
The next generation of smart grid networks demands low latency high bandwidth and QoS to support activity such as monitoring grid assets through applications such as video, allowing contact center agents to quickly access customer data remotely or delivering mobile broadband to technicians reading data across the service territory. Having a 4G network will not just be "nice to have" but is a necessity in future-looking environments where bandwidth demands will soar and multiple applications will each have diverse requirements of their own.
Public versus Private
Generally speaking, private networks provide greater control, reliability, performance, return on equity (ROE) and coverage. As for public networks, utilities and municipalities can take advantage of availability, managed services and smaller initial investment benefits. However, the debate between selecting public or private 4G infrastructure is complicated by the fact that there are various approaches within those parameters:
The future of bandwidth-hogging and low latency smart grid applications is quickly nearing and utilities need to determine next steps in their 4G infrastructure roll-out today. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to smart grid infrastructure given the wide variance in service territories and organizational priorities, but I believe a hybrid and optimized technology approach with unified network management will be necessary to achieve seamless smart grid service delivery.
To make the connected smart grid and an effective middle mile a reality, however, a "network of networks" with unified policies and management will be essential to preparing for the next generation of applications. We as an industry will need to carefully evaluate which technologies are capable of connecting the dots between homes, devices, the middle mile and last miles and vendors in the ecosystem. By carefully evaluating the options, utilities can determine the architectural approach and vendors that best fit specific needs for control, reliability and performance, security, proactive management capabilities and streamlined deployments.