Speakers: Utility sector’s migration to IP is inevitable, so start preparing
Like the public-safety sector, the utility sector long has resisted the idea that legacy voice and data communications systems one day will be replaced by IP systems. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that the notion was considered “heresy,” said Al King, director of application engineering for CalAmp, who spoke on the topic yesterday at the Utilities Telecom Council’s conference in Long Beach, Calif.
“Just a few years ago, I talked about this at UTC and thought I was going to get mugged,” King said. “There’s an awful lot of love for TDM systems.”
Charles Plummer, lead communications consultant for Power System Engineering, agreed. “It’s like kicking and screaming, the way utilities are coming to IP,” Plummer said.
But come to IP they will, for a plethora of reasons. Bandwidth is No. 1 on the list. Native IP offers much higher data speeds than either TDM or SONET networks, which will become even more important as utilities increasingly turn to video to secure critical infrastructure. Also, smart grids utilize many more sensors that will produce an avalanche of data that would choke legacy monitoring-and-control systems that rely on TDM or SONET for transport.
“All new applications are moving toward IP, so you’re going to have to deal with this,” Plummer said.
In addition, native IP networks are scalable, where TDM and SONET networks are not — at least not easily or cheaply.
Adaptive modulation is yet another advantage that native IP systems have over TDM and SONET. This is particularly important for microwave systems, which lose bandwidth when the weather turns bad, King said — and when TDM-based systems lose enough bandwidth, they also lose their synchronization, which in turn causes them to crash. But a loss of bandwidth isn’t a problem for an IP system, which adapts on the fly by automatically prioritizing traffic based on whatever bandwidth is available, according to predetermined quality-of-service parameters, he said.
“You can guarantee the delivery of critical services over an IP network,” King said. “Modern microwave networks are more reliable than legacy TDM networks because of the adaptive-bandwidth ability.”
Another advantage of adaptive modulation is that it allows the use of smaller microwave dishes, according to Plummer.
“Legacy dishes are designed to deal with worst-case weather conditions, so they are very large,” he said. “But with IP, you don’t have to deal with rain fade, because of adaptive modulation — which means you can use smaller dishes and still get great bandwidth reliability.”
Smaller dishes mean smaller towers, which are less expensive to deploy. This is significant because tower deployment can represent as much as 50% of the total link cost, according to Plummer. “This is a game-changer,” he said.
Still another reason that the utility sector’s migration to IP is all but assured is the fact that the day eventually will come when no technicians are available to work on legacy systems. Younger workers — who grew up using IP technologies and applications — aren’t interested in what they consider to be old technology. Even if they were, schools no longer are teaching the curriculum, and training in-house is becoming less of an option because the older workers who are well-versed on legacy systems are beginning to retire, King said.
“The young people are not going to pick up a book and learn this stuff on their own,” King said. “So, the aging work force is as big a problem as aging equipment.”
While the migration to IP in the utility sector is a certainty, it won’t happen overnight. Indeed it will take years, perhaps even decades for it to play out. So utilities, like their public-safety brethren, face some difficult decisions in the meantime. Plenty of solutions currently are available that convert TDM and SONET traffic so that it can be transported over an IP network, and vice versa, so utilities will be able to keep legacy equipment in play for a while yet. This will help utilities that don’t have the wherewithal to execute a forklift migration.
However, such utilities eventually will reach a crossroad that can’t be avoided, according to Jessica Firestone, CEO of Tempest Telecom Solutions. As legacy equipment continues to age, it increasingly will need repair, and utilities will need to consider the cost of keeping it in operation. “It’s like an old car — eventually it becomes more expensive to repair it than to replace it.”
Another consideration for utilities hoping to hang onto their legacy equipment for the foreseeable future is that, as the market continues to shrink for such equipment — which it will, as the migration picks up steam — vendors sooner or later will stop producing it, which will make repair and maintenance much more challenging. When that happens, utilities will have two plays: stockpile new equipment and parts before it’s too late; or, buy the needed gear on the secondary market.
According to Firestone, the first is a short-term fix; even if it wasn’t, purchasing from OEMs can be costly. Concerning the second option, Firestone said that buying on the secondary market is a good choice, but advised any utility considering such an action to do its homework.
“You don’t want to just go to eBay and pay a part from someone who’s working out of a garage,” she said. “There are a lot of companies out there that give the genre a bad name.”
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