Bobbi Harris, member engagement and operations lead at the Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA), discusses how her organisation came to be and what's next for it and its members.

Can you start by telling us a bit about why the UBBA was formed?

The UBBA was formed over about the last 12 months; the idea came about organically as some utilities and technology providers in the US were keen to understand what are the options and requirements and opportunities and challenges of private broadband solutions for utility operations. As talks began, the key stakeholders decided that they needed to form an alliance so that they could formally come together on a very regular basis and share ideas, ask questions and create something that the utility industry, even around the world, could use.

We soft-launched the UBBA at Distributech this past February, and I joined in April. Initially we thought that eight to 10 utilities and vendors would be really interested, but 30 people in the room were, and since that time our membership has risen to 19 organisations, of which five are utilities and the other 14 are vendors. About 60 individuals from those 19 organisations participate in our working groups.

What are the alliance’s current priorities and areas of focus?

We surveyed our original members to determine what areas UBBA should focus on; they came up with four and we created a working group for each of them. There’s the business working group, which is exploring how utilities can make the business case for private broadband solutions, so they’re looking at things like OPEX and CAPEX financial models and ways which some utilities may be able to recuperate some of the associated costs, along with the broadband infrastructure opportunities beyond operational usage. So, a lot of the dialogue around smart cities comes into play in that working group.

We also have a technology working group, which is creating a reference architecture and is looking a little bit at spectrum allocation, alternatives, availability and enablement. There’s the use cases working group, which informs the industry on current and future use-cases driving the business, technical and operational requirements for private broadband networks. Finally, there’s the cybersecurity working group – this is crucial and there’s a big difference when you’re talking about private broadband versus a public carrier network. It is putting together the cybersecurity requirements, based on current standards, such the NIST standards, as we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s looking at the privacy and security issues around private broadband networks versus other types of broadband, and they’re creating some documentation. All of our working groups meet weekly or biweekly and are delivering tools for use by our members if they’re going out for an RFI or an RFP on broadband.

What about voice? To what extent are your members looking at migrating their LMR users over to broadband networks?

There is a lot of discussion about that and the associated requirements, what would that need to look like and what are the requirements there. This is a part of what our use cases working group is focused on, given the extent to which push-to-talk and LMR are used by the utility workforce and for asset and outage management. The work is just getting under way, but we’re hoping to publish something on this topic.

Do wider changes in the utility sector such as the rise of distributed generation and electric vehicles have any implications for utilities’ use of private LTE networks and their deployment?

As they involve two-way power flow, there’s more things utilities have to communicate with and monitor. As we add more sensors, it becomes even more critical to have resilient broadband or private broadband. There’s also the need to be able to prioritise critical data traffic such as alarms, so that they are received quickly and not delayed due to other traffic.

I should also mention video surveillance and drone surveillance. A lot of utilities are beginning to use drones to assess the condition of their assets, and that’s another use-case for broadband. Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) use of drones is crucial for utilities, particularly if you’re trying to restore power after an outage. We saw this last year in Houston; CenterPoint Energy was able to get special permission from the FAA to fly its drones beyond visual line of sight, as while it was trying to restore the power, it needed to assess the damage – as it couldn’t reach the affected areas with its trucks, the safest way was to use drones. I think you’re going to see more discussion around BVLOS licensing for utilities, particularly in outage situations. During normal operations, there’s less of an urgent need for it, but being able to send a drone up beyond line of sight in mountainous or very rural areas to do asset and maintenance checks would save a lot of money, time and manpower, while also being a lot safer.

To what extent are you looking at CBRS as a possible opportunity or as a means of getting access to spectrum?

We are loosely partnering with the CBRS Alliance. We’re happy to work with other alliances or standards bodies – again it’s about not trying to reinvent the wheel; we’re going to stay in our lane, but we’re also going to talk to them to make sure that the utilities are the ultimate beneficiary of all of our work. Speaking more generally about spectrum, in the US, licensed spectrum in the 900MHz band is vital for utilities, and licensed spectrum is important as the protection from the inference it provides helps cut down on latency and jitter issues.

Staying on the topic of working with other bodies, are you looking to influence the development of 3GPP technology to meet the needs of the utilities sector?

We’re not there yet, but again we’re open to those discussions. As we’re just getting our feet under us, the more you talk about things, the more you find that there are other groups and other standards bodies that we need to participate with.

How much is the UBBA focusing on network slicing and 5G, given that some believe these will allow applications that previously could only be supported by private networks to run on public networks?

The hope of 5G clearly has everyone interested. We’re letting the utilities drive how fast 5G will be added to the playbook. Some utilities – not just UBBA members – believe that for utility operations, 5G opportunities may be still five or so years away.

We’re to include content in our deliverables about 5G and private LTE and what it means for broadband for utilities – for example, how smart city applications that use 5G will be connected to or supported by utilities.

The number-one issue for utilities is resilience – telecommunications have to have five 9s availability, hence our work on private broadband networks; our utility members don’t want to be competing for bandwidth with every pizza delivery guy, home baby monitoring system or garage door opener, and the telecommunications sector has to bear this in mind.

That said, the hope is that with smart infrastructure, excess bandwidth or excess services can be shared – removing the need to deploy yet another system. I’ve seen varying degrees of success with network sharing. I think it depends on the ownership of the infrastructure; so, for example, if the municipality owns the electric utility, which deploys broadband across the municipal footprint, some options open up, things like street lighting control and sharing bandwidth with water and gas utilities.

The UBBA's members

  1. 4RF
  2. ABB
  3. Ameren
  4. Anterix
  5. Burns & McDonnell
  6. Cisco Systems
  7. Council Rock
  8. Encore Networks
  9. Ericsson
  10. Evergy
  11. JEA
  12. L3Harris
  13. Federated Wireless
  14. General Electric
  15. Motorola Solutions
  16. Multi-Tech Systems
  17. National Grid
  18. Nokia
  19. Sierra Wireless
  20. Sonim Technologies
  21. Southern Linc
  22. Tait Communications
  23. Xcel Energy

Author: Sam Fenwick