INDIANAPOLIS — Utility companies’ future systems will be a combination of wired and wireless networks in order to increase efficiency. As a result, utilities need to review their applications and build out a scalable network that can evolve and meet the bandwidth needs of automatic meter infrastructure (AMI) and other future technologies, according to a speaker at the Utilities Telecom Council’s annual conference.

Rick Schmidt, a vice president at Power System Engineering, said there currently is a significant demand for utilities to provide backhaul for AMI infrastructure. However, providing adequate coverage and capacity is a challenge because networks need to support 500 kb of data throughput to support applications. At the same time, there is some concern of using commercial technology, such as cellular networks, to support such applications.

“If you have cellular coverage, that’s fine,” he said. “But there is some concern since this is mission-critical infrastructure and [cellular] networks can fail if there is a storm, security breaches and congestion. Cellular is more of a gap filler than a primary.”

Schmidt said more utilities are upgrading private networks because of the growing applications associated with AMI and advances distribution automation, i.e., the use of intelligent control over electrical power grid functions to the distribution level and beyond. However, before upgrades are put into place, he suggested that utilities develop a seven-year plan that considers future applications on networks, such distributed generation at residential, farms and commercial sites. In addition, they must consider mobile data needs, including video surveillance for security.

Such future applications will change the way utilities deliver services but a robust backbone network is needed to support it, Schmidt said. This includes developing a multi-tiered network, determining applications and procuring spectrum — which will take time.

“I think the FCC will see the sense of freeing up some spectrum to be dedicated to utilities, but when I look at the national broadband plan, it’s going to take at least five years or more and then you are going to need that spectrum before it is going to become available,” he said. “So utilities should just build into their scalability plan to expect spectrum.”