Many electric utilities have robust communications infrastructure connecting their operations centers, data centers and substations to support various power delivery data needs. The industry is now starting to turn its focus to distribution systems to increase visibility to devices closer to the end users.

These communications systems are expanding well beyond the traditional distribution SCADA to support automated sectionalizing, distribution synchrophasor measurements and other distribution modernization efforts.

As the level of complexity involved and sheer number of communication networks increases, the need for a holistic review and comprehensive approach becomes more compelling.

How We Got Here

Historically, as utilities expanded their communications into the distribution system, communication needs would be identified for individual projects. Those project teams often were not aware of existing field area networks that may have been able to support their needs. This resulted in individual project teams developing their own approaches to meeting their communication requirements.

As these projects became more frequent, communications networks proliferated within each utility. Projects such as traditional distribution SCADA, land-mobile radio, weather stations, meter reading, fault current indicators and other sensors each had their own communication approach, whether it be leased line, privately owned fiber, unlicensed or licensed radio systems.

These varying single-use networks present significant challenges to utility Information Technology and Operation Technology (ITOT) groups. One major issue is managing multiple vendor relationships and contracts. Each vendor likely negotiated a unique contract with specific provisions; it can be difficult to track those details if you have six vendors providing unique suites of network equipment.

Stocking spare parts for this equipment also can be a challenge with multiple single-use, application-specific networks. Each vendor likely has a few key components that need to be stocked, and these each need to be stocked to sufficient levels to support prompt break-fix resolutions. As new components are released, stocks must be swapped out. This inventory shuffling can be cumbersome for a department dealing with multiple unique networks.

Too Many Details

ITOT engineering departments also are challenged by operating multiple networks. Individuals often become subject matter experts (SME) on one or two networks. Departments struggle to provide a backup SME in the event the original specialist takes leave or leaves the company altogether. Standards development is also burdened by these multiple networks, as the department must develop and maintain multiple standards, which in times of increased workload are often the first things to suffer.

Finally, the network operations teams also face significant challenges. They face the same SME challenges as the ITOT engineering teams. They also have to create standards and document how they operate the network, as well as the processes and procedures to respond to common issues. Most networks would benefit from periodic health checks by operations personnel, such as checking on key performance indicators (KPI) and determining if the network requires tuning to stay within agreed-upon KPIs. Unfortunately, in times of high work volume — responding to issues on six or more networks — these health checks often are set aside quickly.

What is the solution to this proliferation of single-use networks? How does a utility change its approach to meeting project-specific communications requirements?

Utility ITOT groups need to see themselves as a general-purpose carrier, similar to the major U.S. telecommunications companies, and build a multiuse network with the flexibility to handle most project communication needs. LTE, or long-term evolution, is an attractive solution for this multiuse network for several reasons.

LTE Lights the Way

LTE is an open standards-based technology that does not lock you into using a single vendor. A utility can choose a vendor to build the base core infrastructure, then select from the myriad of radio vendors who support LTE technology for their radio communications. Additionally, some utility equipment vendors have embedded LTE functionality directly into their devices, eliminating the need for an external radio.

There are significant costs upfront to deploy an LTE core, plan and deploy base stations, and supply backhaul to base stations. But depending on the number of use cases a utility can identify — there are potentially many — and the number of endpoints, the reduced cost to deploy an endpoint versus many proprietary systems can justify the upfront costs. Additionally, other systems have a similar cost to deploy base stations or mesh nodes, and backhaul needs are present in most radio solutions.

LTE also has various sections of spectrum designated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). While spectrum can be expensive, there are spectrum holders looking to work with utilities to include buying or leasing spectrum into their business case at price points that might make sense for larger utilities. Smaller utilities that may not be able to purchase or lease spectrum have options to utilize general use licenses in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band. Some utilities also might want to use public LTE and consider a future path to private LTE if expansion justifies it.

The case for a general-purpose network to support various field area applications is compelling. LTE is an attractive technology for this network. Its open standards-based approach has led to many vendor options in the space, along with various frequency options, making it more likely to be available in a utility’s operational territory.


Dependable communications are paramount to restore power quickly when disaster strikes. With limits and conflicting priorities on public networks, utilities increasingly are investing in upgrading their private networks.

Read the white paper


Mike Mahoney, PE, PMP, is a Burns & McDonnell project manager with experience spanning a broad range of networks and telecommunications systems.