Anterix maintains 900 MHz broadband momentum with NYPA pilot
New York Power Authority (NYPA) recently announced a new pilot project with Anterix to assess potential use cases private LTE technology leveraging 900 MHz broadband spectrum, an indication of continued interest in the space for utilities and other critical-infrastructure entities, according to Anterix President and CEO Rob Schwartz.
“The momentum we’ve had since the report and order was approved [by the FCC] in May has continued to be substantial,” Schwartz said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications.
Approved after several years of consideration, the FCC order approved rules allowing Anterix to transform interleaved 900 MHz LMR channels into a contiguous 3×3 MHz swath of airwaves that can support LTE technology. Anterix plans to lease its spectrum via long-term contracts—typically deals of at least 20 years in length—primarily to utilities that need a spectral foundation new private wireless networks throughout their territories to support smart-grid technologies.
“Utilities have always been using private communications networks—they have two-way radio systems, they have SCADA systems, they have unlicensed meter-reading systems,” Schwartz said. “The utilities we talk to have a dozen-plus different systems that they manage.
“A lot of them are antiquated, getting-to-the-end-of-life technologies. [Using Anterix spectrum enhances] their ability to bring all of those together onto the robust global technology of LTE and ride the development curves of what’s happening on that front. That’s a critical piece of what’s bringing NYPA and the rest of the industry forward.”
Being able to leverage low-latency LTE connectivity is particularly important to utilities as the power grid seeks to leverage alternative-energy sources—for instance, electric generation from solar and wind technologies—that are owned by end users, not the utility, according to Schwartz.
“How do you connect all of these new distributed energy resources—like solar, wind and battery storage–and use all of those in what becomes a two-way network in what was traditionally a one-way network?” he said. “What it requires is a very reliable, robust and low-latency communications network.
“We’ve got now nationwide capability of providing broadband at 900 MHz. It’s just the right kind of spectrum to be able to provide wide-area coverage. These often are statewide utilities and multi-state utilities.”
NYPA has received FCC approval for two experimental licenses to evaluate LTE use cases that leverage the 900 MHz spectrum from Anterix as part of NYPA’s Vision 2020 plan to become “the nation’s first all-digital utility.” The first license was to enable indoor testing, but the more recent experimental license will let NYPA pilot an outdoor wide-area deployment to support some innovative use cases, Schwartz said.
“This includes things like drone technology, to be able to monitor and inspect their systems; integrating their workforce mobility applications; the ability to get to their command-and-control of their metering services and some of the analytics that they do,” Schwartz said. “They’re even integrating classic push-to-talk systems into it—as you know, push-to-talk has come a long way and is now available from multiple vendors.”
NYPA’s plans to utilize drone technology are intriguing, particularly as utilities seek cost-effective methods to ensure that overhead power lines near heavily forested areas are cleared from tree limbs, enhancing both the reliability and safety of the power grid, according to Schwartz.
“It’s hard to get crews in there to maintain those,” he said. “But if you can do at least surveillance with drones, that’s a very high-value use case for them.
“I think of things like that as priceless use cases. What’s the value of being able to see that the tree is growing over a line and being to trim it, before it actually breaks your line? [If the line is broken,] then you have to roll trucks in there and there is a risk of wildfires and other incidents.”
Although NYPA and other entities that have secured experimental licenses for 900 MHz broadband—Southern Company, Ameren, Exelon, UPS, Xcel Energy and the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL)—each are evaluating different sets of use cases in their pilot projects, they have demonstrated a willingness to share their findings with each other, Schwartz said.
“Uniquely in this sector, utilities are willing to share their information among themselves, because they’re solving the same kind of problems,” Schwartz said. “What we saw as we traveled around the country was that they were doing it individually, and there was an important value of bringing them together.
“To me, that’s the grass roots of what becomes a network of networks. As the utilities build out their systems and get interconnected between those systems, we’re able to reap incredible synergies—the scale effects of being able to collectively drive developers to develop applications for utilities and the integration of those applications.”
NYPA President and CEO Gil Quinones echoed this sentiment.
“Creating a resilient and redundant private communications system is key to our nation-leading digital strategy,” Quinones said in a prepared statement. “With the help of the Anterix team, and the support and collaboration of more than a dozen utilities across the nation with whom we have compared notes on LTE deployment, we are excited to pilot a range of use cases at 900 MHz. We believe that collective action by the utility sector embracing private LTE will lead to a broader range of benefits both for utilities and our customers.”
By sharing lessons learned from these 900 MHz pilots, utilities and other entities that leverage the spectrum can identify common use cases, identify standards and establish best use cases, Schwartz said. This approach can enhance interoperability and encourage the development of a robust vendor ecosystem that drives innovation while lowering costs, he said.
Utilizing LTE as the technological foundation for such 900 MHz systems already is proving to be beneficial, resulting in “plenty of vendor choice” from manufacturers like Motorola Solutions, Nokia and Ericsson, Schwartz said.
“The nice thing is that each of them have unique solutions, and choice is a great thing,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz also noted the potential for utilities and other enterprises that utilize 900 MHz spectrum to let some of their assets—for instance, cell-site locations and backhaul connectivity—be leveraged for other purposes, such helping provide broadband connectivity in rural areas.
“We see tremendous synergies,” Schwartz said. “As we’re trying to help utilities build these networks in areas where today there isn’t really commercial coverage—again, [utilities] have to cover areas where transmission lines run and substations are, but there aren’t people—we see that definitely as an opportunity to share those assets in those kinds of places.
“If you think about the fiber pulls that are going to happen and the towers that are going to get built in that area—the primary fixed cost to enable rural broadband to serve those communities—[it makes sense] to allow WISPs and other carriers to come in and leverage that infrastructure to serve those rural communities.
“I think that’s one of the barriers that has prevented [rural broadband] from happening—that there’s not an availability of that infrastructure today, so the costs on a standalone basis is too great. But we’re working with a lot of utilities that are very interested in seeing that kind of growth.”