Connecting the New Digital Utility

These are challenging and exciting times for utilities. Smart meters, smart distribution or grids, smart logistics, multi-channel customer experience and digital field operations are just a handful of the trends impacting the utility sector. Ramping up to support them will require utilities to embrace digital technologies on many fronts. A secure and reliable infrastructure will be needed to connect everything together. A multi-access core network that supports multiple types of wireless and wired access will be key to realizing the benefits of the digital utility, such as operational efficiencies, asset life cycle management and business process evolution.

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By Nick Cadwgan

These are challenging and exciting times for utilities. Smart meters, smart distribution or grids, smart logistics, multi-channel customer experience and digital field operations are just a handful of the trends impacting the utility sector. Ramping up to support them will require utilities to embrace digital technologies on many fronts. A secure and reliable infrastructure will be needed to connect everything together. A multi-access core network that supports multiple types of wireless and wired access will be key to realizing the benefits of the digital utility, such as operational efficiencies, asset life cycle management and business process evolution.

Utilities go Digital

Utilities are under pressure from competitors, regulators, shareholders and their customers to improve levels of service, conservation, security and safety. And all for less money, of course. The convergence of IT and operational technologies that use data from the network and devices, such as digital sensors, to drive process automation and increased performance will be essential for the connected digital utility.

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FIGURE 1: Increasing adoption of new utility technology

Organizations in many economic sectors, including utilities, are automating their operations with smart meters, sensors and telemetry systems. With the data they collect, they can create important correlations between all levels of their operations using both real-time and historical data. Combined with other metrics, this enables them to create meaningful and actionable insights to fine-tune performance, automate their operations, and better manage their assets and facilities.

Embracing new technologies will also give rise to new applications that drive a multitude of operational enhancements that deliver increased value, including video surveillance, asset management and service assurance, authentication and access control, remote diagnostics and predictive maintenance, operations visibility and control, and connected worker efficiency and safety monitoring. These new services and applications will create a diverse range of service requirements and characteristics that will need to be supported.

Wireless will be Key

To facilitate this digital transformation, robust, reliable, flexible and secure connectivity is critical. It will need to support wired systems such as legacy TDM-based systems and today’s IP/MPLS networks. However, to be successful in the coming digital era, wireless networking will need to be at the heart of the new connected digital utility.

A next generation of wireless IP technology is unleashing an age of pervasive connectivity and awareness that will enable more efficient operations, automation and customer interactions. This transformation will require the support of 4G/LTE today, and 5G in the near future. New spectrum is being re-allocated by governments, while other spectrum will be shared (sub-6 GHz in the US and 2300-400 MHz in Europe). The wireless industry is also expanding the use of unlicensed spectrum such as Wi-Fi, as well as looking to the new MulteFire standard. Fixed networks, both optical and copper-based, will also continue to play an important part. For some applications, wired networks may continue to be the optimal match for their requirements.

Digital to the Core

With the new digital transformation, disparate, access-specific networks will be too costly and inefficient. To reap the maximum benefits and efficiencies, these new services and applications will need to be anchored in a multi-access core with common services provided over any access technology. This flexible, multi-access converged core should also employ hybrid access with concurrent service delivery across wired and wireless access technologies to maximize the utility’s service and application footprints. It should also be capable of interlinking easily with public service providers to expand the utility’s overall footprint and ensure business continuity globally, if required.

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FIGURE 2: Robust, secure communications underpins the digital utility

To be truly cost-effective and competitive, the converged multi-access core will have to be “cloud-native” by design. Only a cloud-native core can deliver the necessary scale, performance, reliability and flexibility to support the diverse range of services and applications being envisaged. A key principle of cloud-native systems is software-function disaggregation, which ensures relevant network functions can be independently scaled and placed where needed, critical for real-time and latency-intolerant services. Moving beyond merely separating control and user plane functions, the core must be modularized into smaller components, dynamically scaling only those functions that are necessary for increased flexibility and reliability.

To deliver further flexibility and reliability, these disaggregated software functions must be supported in a cloud-agile operations environment to deliver end-to-end lifecycle management. A cloud-native design requires state-efficient, virtual network functions (VNFs) with a common data layer. This enables it to support the scalability, performance and reliability required for IoT/MTC device deployment, while also maximizing the efficient use of network compute resources to manage operational costs. It will also need to support multimedia, cloud-based collaboration tools to improve data flow, increase safety and productivity, and ultimately improve end-user services.

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FIGURE 3: Common anchor for multi-access

The core will also need to support and deliver service and application-based network slicing. This will allow utilities to separate and dedicate resources for key functions, such as tele-protection and control. Network slicing not only protects network resources for these key applications or services, it provides absolute security by placing them on separate virtual networks. Network slicing realizes the cost savings of a single network as well as the security and performance characteristics required by each application or service.

Digital Transformation

There is a general trend towards digitalization and automation, which some commentators are heralding as the 4th industrial revolution (4IR). This affects not only manufacturing, but also the utility sector. Information, communication and technology (ICT) is at the heart of this transformation. A cloud-native, multi-access core gives utilities access to a whole new generation of wireless and wired networks for affordable coverage of their entire operational footprint. It offers the robustness, reliability, low latency and security that many of their mission-critical applications demand.

Digital transformation will enable utilities to go beyond the goals of cost-effective supply acquisition, resource management, system monitoring and basic service delivery. Utilities will be able to improve customer relations, increase shareholder value and use innovative technologies to create new applications and services as well as realizing significant productivity and efficiency gains. UP


About the author: With more than 20 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, Marketing Director Nick Cadwgan has held senior architectural, product marketing and management, and business strategy roles focusing on broadband access, carrier Ethernet, carrier/IP routing, optical transport and mobile networks with Motorola, Nortel Networks, Newbridge Networks and other privately funded companies. Cadwgan brings a proven combination of marketing, technology and business management expertise to his current role at Nokia.

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