​CFC Solutions Plus provides a quarterly analysis of electric cooperative industry trends. This issue features expertise from NRTC and an overview of broadband options and technologies available to electric cooperatives.

In this issue:

  • Broadband Communications Investment
  • Factors Driving Broadband
  • Electric Utility Communications Growth
  • Value of a Broadband Backbone
  • Broadband Technologies Continue to Evolve
  • Technology Roundup: Fiber | Fixed and Mobile Wireless | CBRS | TV White Space | Satellite

Broadband Communications Investment

By Greg Santoro
Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer, NRTC

Electric cooperatives are finding more reasons to invest in robust broadband communications networks to meet smart grid demands. Many co-ops begin by building a high-capacity secure backbone to connect remote offices and substations. Once in place, the backbone can support future uses like advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distributed energy resources (DERs) and other down-line sensors and devices. This investment also creates revenue opportunities in the form of leases, business connectivity or ISP services.

Factors Driving Broadband

Communications networks are long-term assets, with useful lives of 10 to 20 years. As a result, electric co-ops must project data and communications needs far into the future. Just 15 years ago, few imagined the devices and services that propel consumer broadband today—HD streaming video, smartphones, virtual reality, Internet of Things (IoT) and apps like YouTube. Yet these and thousands of other products have fueled a 600 percent increase in North American IP traffic. Connected devices are forecast to reach 50 billion end points by 2020—more than 12 per person—requiring faster, more reliable networks.

Electric Utility Communications Growth

The foundation of a smart grid combines two-way communications with AMI and other technologies to provide electric cooperatives with near real-time oversight of their systems. This scheme depends on a reliable, secure, distributed and intelligent broadband network. In this environment, electric cooperative investment in telecom infrastructure becomes an imperative to move operations, consumer service and future new revenue streams forward.

For example, look at improvements in metering. Automatic meter reading (AMR) units that send data one way (from the meter to the office) once a month place little pressure on communications networks. But the latest AMI meters read in near real time and can generate more than 1 GB of data per month. Now, picture thousands of distribution automation, demand response, voltage control, power quality and other components on cooperative lines, all requiring low latency, dynamic and secure two-way connectivity (see chart in PDF or print version). It's clear movement of information will "power" the grid of the future.

Combine this with the explosion of DERs, including solar photovoltaic arrays, battery storage, microgrids and electric vehicle charging stations, and the complexity and throughput requirements on a smart grid expand exponentially.

In addition to DER and IoT sensors, electric cooperatives are leveraging new technologies to inspect and monitor assets. Some are piloting drones to perform tasks that formerly called for a truck roll as well as deploying new security and surveillance measures. Virtually every part of the generation, transmission, distribution and consumption of energy will soon be monitored and managed, making the grid reactive and flexible to real-time changes in conditions.

Value of a Broadband Backbone

In the past, electric cooperatives often considered communications only as part of a new technology solution. This led to one network for Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition, one for AMI, one for IT, one for radio dispatch, etc. The end result was a fragmented and difficult-to-manage (or expand) communications architecture. Cooperatives are encouraged to create a comprehensive 10-year network plan that accounts for expected communications and associated requirements in an integrated fashion.

Broadband Technologies Continue to Evolve

Until recently, microwave, leased powerline carrier and even satellite for the most remote locations have been used to connect substations and remote offices for data transmission. Over time, these technologies have evolved with microwave now dominating data backhaul capabilities up to 1 GB. However, more than 80 percent of cooperative sites are linked at speeds below 25 Mbps, a level that will be unable to support demands down the road.

Technology Roundup

Fiber

Fiber delivers the most secure, reliable, high throughput and lowest latency communications for utility network needs. With enough capacity for future purposes, a fiber backhaul system typically provides cooperatives the best long-term option. While building a fiber solution entails extensive planning and significant capital, it can serve as the backbone for enhancing the rural quality of life by facilitating additional community uses and opening new revenue and business models.

A fiber backbone can extend a broadband network to the last mile and eventually provide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connections. The cost of a fiber backbone and FTTH network varies based on the number of miles built, the amount of overhead versus underground lines required, the total number of homes passed and other considerations.

Fixed and Mobile Wireless

Wireless data networks have come a long way over the last 15 years. The maximum throughput that wireless networks could practically deliver a decade ago was about 1-2 Mbps. Given the increase in the amount of wireless spectrum available and advancements in radio, antenna and system design, fixed point-to-multipoint wireless schemes can achieve up to 100 Mbps per connection on a line-of-site (LoS) basis.

Wireless network performance depends greatly on topography, available spectrum and the number and placement of vertical assets (tower locations) available. The network must be carefully designed by an experienced team to meet desired performance characteristics.

However, new spectrum is coming available, notably in the 3.5 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), 600 MHz (white space) and millimeter wave frequencies. These bands as well as additional advances in wireless equipment will provide cooperatives with even more deployment alternatives. Finally, for extremely remote spots, satellite broadband still remains a viable connectivity solution.

CBRS

The CBRS is a block of 150 MHz of spectrum at the 3.5 GHz band (3550-3700 MHz) created in 2016 to support wireless broadband. Many urban wireless carriers see it as a band for fifth-generation (5G) mobile services IoT. In rural America, electric cooperatives may be able to use it for broadband or to create private, secure networks for next-generation utility services.

TV White Space

Unused broadcast TV channels in the UHF band (600-700 MHz) have attracted particular interest from rural Internet providers. Due to their low position in the electromagnetic spectrum, these "TV white space" signals travel farther and penetrate buildings more efficiently.

Many in the wireless industry, including Microsoft, believe that networks deployed using TV white space could close significant gaps in U.S. rural broadband coverage over the next several years.

Satellite

Satellite broadband has the advantage of serving very remote rural areas that terrestrial wireline and wireless networks can't cost-effectively reach. Critics argue satellite tends to be less reliable, supports slower service and suffers from latency—delays between transmission points—due to the long distances between satellites in orbit and ground stations. However, a new generation of satellites has increased speeds well beyond 25 Mbps downstream.

By the early 2020s, companies plan to launch "constellations" consisting of thousands of small satellites in low-earth orbit, covering the entire globe with potentially higher-speed service. It's too early to determine whether the technology or economics make this a viable option in rural areas.

With due diligence, proper planning and the right mix of technologies, a broadband network can not only meet the internal electric functions of a cooperative but also generate revenue from fiber leasing, enterprise connectivity and last-mile broadband to meet member needs for years to come.

View the full PDF on the CFC website.

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