SouthernLINC Wireless, a commercial carrier in the southeast United States that supports the mission-critical communications needs of affiliated utilities in its territories, this week announced plans to complete an LTE network by 2018 to meet the increasing data demand of its utilities and commercial customers.

As utilities become more dependent on line sensors, automated switches, automated metering and consider implementing other smart-grid capabilities, the need for reliable, high-speed data connectivity becomes more important, according to Tom Newdome, engineering director for SouthernLINC.

“A lot of what drove this is that the data needs of our [utility] affiliates have been increasing,” Newdome said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “Our affiliates have used [sensors and automation] to increase customer service, reliability, operate systems more efficiently from centralized locations, and provide better response. Of course, it’s all centered around data—getting that data off of the system and being able to communicate.”

Although SouthernLINC considered a variety of 3G and other broadband technologies, the carrier decided on LTE and has selected Ericsson to provide the radio access network (RAN) and Cisco Systems to support the multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) portion of the system, Newdome said.

“The driver for going toward LTE is that it’s an international [standard] and is becoming very prevalent in the industry. As you look down the road, it’s important to have a system that has a large ecosystem of support, as far as mobile devices, handsets and that type of stuff. It won’t be proprietary with a single vendor and that type of stuff down the road.

“A lot of things in LTE are appealing, as far as the quality of service and security it provides.”

SouthernLINC has long operated a private iDEN network that provides mission-critical voice communications to its affiliates. The company plans to continue operating the iDEN network for voice communications and use the LTE network to meet its data needs, Newdome said.

“Our iDEN voice system is critical to us and will be,” Newdome said. “Right now, our focus is on data and trying to satisfy the user data need. There’s a lot of work to be done [in LTE] on the voice side.”

When asked whether SouthernLINC ultimately would like to migrate its voice communications to the LTE network—presuming mission-critical voice capability is developed for LTE—Newdome declined to speculate.

“We want to do what’s best for our users,” he said.

SouthernLINC operates its iDEN network on 850 MHz spectrum, according to Newdome.

“That’s part of our design, and we feel comfortable we’ll be able to do that just fine. But you’ve got a lot of technical issues there that you’ve got to take into account.”

With vendors selected, SouthernLINC is in the process of completing the contractual arrangements and beginning the design work for its LTE network, Newdome said. Construction on the network is scheduled to begin in 2015 and to be completed in 2018, he said.

One of the attractive aspects of LTE is that AT&T and Verizon have executed nationwide rollouts of the technology, so SouthernLINC will not be on the “bleeding edge” as it builds its network, Newdome said.

Of course, FirstNet is building a nationwide broadband system that will use LTE as its core terrestrial technology. When asked whether SouthernLINC would consider working in cooperation with FirstNet to leverage network assets, Newdome did not dismiss the possibility.

“We haven’t really gotten that far; I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how that plays out,” Newdome said. “We’re open to anything that’s beneficial to our customers.”