Electric utilities have been building microwave and fiber-optic infrastructure and utility-wide communications infrastructure for decades. However, that rate has accelerated in the past decade. From converting legacy technology such as synchronous optical networks (SONET) to packets using multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) and carrier Ethernet, utility networks are using the same technology as public carriers. They are also expanding in scale because they allow a utility to drive efficiency, support a more dynamic grid and leverage the increased deployment of fiber.

Public carriers are driven to adopt technology that delivers more capacity while lowering the cost of service. In comparison, utility networks are driven by reliability first and often lag the market because they do not have the same pressure to add capacity. Utilities are looking for mature standards and equipment with a proven performance record.

As the communications industry pushes technology forward toward the next generation, utility networks are pressured to follow suit because equipment manufacturers want to consolidate their product portfolio. The utility market is not large enough to create a dedicated ecosystem of products that scale to what a large investor-owned utility needs. The challenge lies in identifying the next big thing and making informed decisions on technology upgrades to new solutions in place of the proven ones.

In terms of high-speed backbone networks, the next industry trend is software-defined networking (SDN) or, as a more general term, application programming interface (API) controlled networks. Though SDN can be defined differently depending on the use case, we focus on wide area utility networks, likely carrier Ethernet, IP/MPLS or MPLS-TP networks today, evolving to allow API control. Data centers have blazed the trail for the SDN model due to the demanding, dynamic nature of the networks. For a utility, wide area networks may prove a likely candidate for a move to SDN versus the protocol-based networks deployed today.

Where the distributed control of standards-based routing such as IS-IS and BGP enables MPLS to be distributed and thus resistant to central points of failure, they are also hard to optimize and are slow to implement change. For example, load-balancing traffic on redundant links or paths or dynamic optimization of resources are often tasks that have to be performed manually. Major changes in capability can take years or decades to be implemented if a hardware refresh is required.

SDN provides an API on each node to optimize the routing decisions from a central controller while using distributed failure detection and restoration protocols to preserve the resiliency. It is flexible enough to have application-defined traffic flows designed for specific needs, like teleprotection (relay communication) that can have known primary and backup paths as required by the utility protection department. These services are managed by the SDN controller but provisioned for local failover between engineered paths in less than 50 milliseconds.


SDN is heading to the wide area utility network. Learn about the benefits and implications that come with it, and how to position current technology decisions for the future.

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Dan Bayouth, PE, is business line manager for networks at Burns & McDonnell. He specializes in telecommunications and network engineering for critical infrastructure. His experience includes MPLS, private LTE, substation IEC 61850, DWDM, and SONET network design construction, integration, and operations. He has served as project manager and senior architect for the design and construction of multiple utilitywide network installations.