Utilities are adapting to serve an ever-changing landscape of customer requirements and technology advancements for improving grid performance. Driven by device density and new applications, the need for a ubiquitous, centralized communication network is becoming more vital to support and enable this evolution. The days of deploying a new communication system for each of the many customer and grid applications has passed. Consolidating them into a unified architecture, such as a wireless long-term evolution (LTE) network, offers a host of advantages for utilities.

Start With the End in Mind

With the right deployment approach, the advantages of LTE outweigh the challenges, which is why it remains at the forefront of communication solutions for enabling critical utility applications. By deciding on LTE, utilities can begin the process of deploying this solution into their networks with a staged investment approach that aligns with their goals to provide safe and reliable power.

One solution utilities should consider is the concept of initially deploying an LTE or 5G standalone core to control their network of fixed devices, while in parallel creating partnerships with public carriers or network partners for access to their radio access network (RAN). This will allow for improved device management and control at the core while the path to utility-owned spectrum gets more clarity.

Fundamentally, utilities can identify the right approach for adoption that will meet their specific needs and protect their investment for decades to come. A partnered approach with industry professionals can deliver a defensible model and help define the solution set sooner.

Tangible Benefits Available Today With a Proven Technology

  • New system adaptability — An LTE network provides extensibility and scalability for future applications and needs. As the density of edge devices increases exponentially and new applications emerge, LTE continues to enable services to devices and use cases. LTE is a standards-based technology that provides utilities confidence in its longevity and interoperability to a fluctuating industry.
  • Mission-critical reliability — Designed and built for utility critical applications, LTE provides the reliability utilities expect. When deployed with resiliency in mind, an LTE network can minimize downtime with robust connectivity to keep critical systems up and running.
  • Enhanced security capabilities — From chipsets to protocols, an LTE network offers extensive security for the overall system architecture. LTE provides “defense in depth” as recommended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and is the only mature wireless technology that enables protections of the control plane separately from the user plane.
  • Reduced maintenance strain — LTE networks create a single standards-based communication network across the entirety of a utility’s operations territory, enabling efficient operations and maintenance. This concept avoids the ongoing efforts of keeping up with replacements and upgrades of a large quantity of disparate and aging communication systems.
  • Added social and community value — Utilities are uniquely suited to deliver broadband to the last remaining mile. LTE networks can enable utilities to serve their customers in new ways.

Perceived Challenges

Even as the benefits to deploy a private LTE (PLTE) network stack up in favor of this technology, adoption can often seem like a daunting and expensive undertaking. As utilities focus on PLTE solutions, many challenges are raised, but are avoidable.

  • Spectrum — Spectrum affordability and availability is a primary concern of utilities, especially where they are competing with larger communications carriers and others that are entering the PLTE market. This can make spectrum a seemingly insurmountable decision point. However, there are many options available today at varying price points. Clarity on this topic is focused on timing and capital investment levels that utilities are willing to support. Spectrum is one of the few assets that depreciates on the balance sheet but appreciates in market value.
  • Operations — It is a real challenge to be prepared with the necessary skill sets to operate a new communication ecosystem that will constantly evolve, scale and move forward as it matures. Operations and maintenance for deploying and operating the network can seem much higher than existing operational costs. However, it quickly becomes a savings over time once the total cost of ownership (TCO) is complete and cost reductions for all various systems are replaced and device subscription costs are eliminated.
  • Capital Investment — The capital requirements for building an LTE network from the ground up — the core, the radio access network, backhaul, tower sites, etc. — require a significant but rate-recoverable investment. A TCO model that looks at the lifetime costs of the network shows that this investment pales in comparison to the costs associated with deploying devices on separate networks as utilities traditionally do.

The Future Will See You Now

A host of strategic approaches exist for utilities to consolidate their disparate field area networks with LTE-based technology. Partnering with an experienced team focused on solutions for specific needs while delivering a standards-based, ubiquitous, centralized communication network can deliver for requirements today and tomorrow.


Utilities are uniquely suited to deliver broadband to America's last remaining mile.

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Bruce Albright is a 5G solutions manager at Burns & McDonnell who recently managed the deployment of the nation’s first utility-grade private LTE network. With extensive experience in wireless telecommunications systems, he now works with utilities to deploy their own private LTE networks and bring more reliability, security and cost reduction to end users.