Challenges, Solutions in Utility Communications Networks

Utilities are challenged to use their communications networks more effectively to manage electricity demand, generation, transmission and distribution.

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By Julio Gonzalez, Fujitsu Network Communications Inc.

Utilities are challenged to use their communications networks more effectively to manage electricity demand, generation, transmission and distribution.

To improve supply reliability and enhance business and operational responsiveness, utilities must modernize their communications networks.

With strained networks, the need to advance infrastructure capabilities is accelerated.

Emerging Applications, Requirements Drive Need to Modernize

Applications are driving increases in communications traffic. They include demand response systems, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distributed grid operations, grid automation, operational systems for managing power generation, outages and flows, two-way communications for consumer energy efficiency initiatives, transmission interconnectivity, and network security monitoring and reporting.

Existing communications networks are not built to handle these large increases in traffic or to provide the requisite security safeguards.

The North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC) standard for critical infrastructure protection (CIP), for example, calls for utility personnel to exercise increasing vigilance over substation and network assets.

This will require monitoring technologies—including remote video surveillance—which need much bandwidth to deliver surveillance data effectively to a centralized monitoring hub.

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These market dynamics show utilities need to upgrade the capacity of their existing communications networks to keep them fully functional and compliant with regulations, as well as to ensure they are reliable and competitive.

From Legacy Infrastructure to Next-generation Networking

Existing communications networks cannot simply be replaced; they must evolve to align with the realities of funding in a regulated industry.

Utilities have enormous investments—measured in financial and human resources—in legacy communications systems and architectures. These investments must be extended as far as possible.

Current applications and emerging, bandwidth-intensive, packet-centric applications, such as those mentioned, must coexist.

Traditionally, many utilities have relied on Synchronous Optical Networks (SONET), which have served them well over the years and have provided the highest standards of network reliability.

But these networks do not transport packet-centric information efficiently.

Packet Optical Networking Platforms (Packet ONPs) bridge legacy and next-generation networking by efficiently and simultaneously supporting SONET and packet-based traffic.

By integrating transport technologies in a single network element, Packet ONPs deliver unprecedented network infrastructure efficiency and eliminate unnecessary network elements and their associated capital and operational costs.

As utilities recognize the need for a transition to a packet-centric infrastructure, they become more familiar with a high-performance implementation of Carrier Ethernet called Connection-oriented Ethernet (COE), which offers the flexibility of Ethernet transport yet overcomes many of the security and performance limitations in other Carrier Ethernet forms.

As an advanced implementation of Carrier Ethernet, COE is suited to meet the stringent requirements of utility networks, combining SONET-like performance with Ethernet’s cost and scalability.

Like SONET, COE provides fast network fault isolation, 50-millisecond network protection and restoration, and continuous network performance monitoring with bandwidth guarantees that support stringent service-level agreements (SLAs).

COE on a Packet ONP also enables utilities to increase bandwidth efficiency over an existing SONET network significantly.

This cost-effectively facilitates the transition from a SONET network architecture to a packet-optimized Ethernet architecture at a pace that best aligns with budget objectives.

Managing the Network

Utilities also should consider the longer-term requirements of and options for managing their communications networks.

Some utilities build and manage their own networks with help from third parties for supplemental design expertise and equipment.

These outside vendors can help utilities segment their networks, provide virtual private networks, augment or segregate bandwidth, and provide additional value for dollars already invested in infrastructure.

Other utilities work with industry vendors that specialize in communications networks, which allows them to outsource most of the network modernization.

Some utilities use a hybrid approach.

In these cases, they maintain most of the utility network under internal control while using external carriers in certain geographic locations as required.

Utilities that retain or expand private networks should aim to minimize the disruption of core operations and keep operational personnel focused on delivering communications service.

The best solution to a business case for enhancement often is using existing networks with newer equipment to leverage and extend the life of legacy technology.

Network Management Technology Services

Industry communications partners also can add value by providing services that enable a utility’s internal staff to make informed decisions or supplement existing knowledge and skills in:

  • Network design and planning
  • Prequalification of fiber-optic cables
  • Engineering
  • Providing, installing and provisioning equipment
  • Actuating, testing, maintaining and repairing networks
  • Providing network operations centers (NOCs) that offer 24/7 network management

These technologies and services help consolidate existing infrastructure, simplify and speed data access, and ensure overall network security.

Actions Utilities Should Consider

As bandwidth demand strains existing utility communications networks, converging factors present new opportunities.

To help navigate through the communications structure changes and opportunities, utilities should consider the following actions:

Planning now. Careful planning for utility communications network upgrades should take an integrated approach that thoroughly analyzes all relevant corporate and technology resources, requirements and goals.

Building bridges internally. Optimal planning endeavors include representatives from various departments. Incorporate network growth in any operational discussions and planning. Continue bringing operational and information technology groups together to gain synergistic insights.

Learning from others. Utilities that did not receive smart grid funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) can analyze other utilities’ ARRA projects for ideas to maximize their investments in communication network upgrades.

Working with experts. Consider partnering with communications and networking vendors for guidance, planning and implementation based upon these criteria: history of projects in the utility industry; history of product and service excellence; leadership and ranking within the optical networking industry; level of technology advancement proven through development or controlled acquisition; sustainability in operations areas such as research and development, as well as financial stability; and robustness of its technology (e.g., security, scalability and reliability of its optical networks).

Developing a strategy to build a next-generation utility communications network requires careful analysis and planning.

This should include a comprehensive assessment of current and future corporate and operational information technology requirements to ensure utilities are prepared for higher bandwidth, low latency, on-demand availability of information and high-security requirements.

Select a business partner that understands your communications infrastructure challenges and opportunities and can help you navigate through the modernization efforts.

Author

Julio Gonzalez is principal solutions architect at Fujitsu Network Communications. He is responsible for business development and product strategy on packet optical networking solutions. His role focuses on architecting specific solutions in response to customer requirements. He has a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Troy University in Alabama and is CCNA- and CCNP-certified.

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