Public safety reconsiders who should use its broadband network
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A potential symbiotic partnership
In addition to these operational justifications for utilities having access to the FirstNet broadband network, there are several economic realities that should provide the incentives necessary to forge some sort of partnership.
Traditional public-safety officials quickly have come to the realization that the $7 billion that Congress earmarked for the buildout of the FirstNet broadband system will not be nearly enough to deploy a nationwide network. Even if there was enough money to build out the system, more locations for LTE sites — and backhaul — are needed than traditional public safety controls today. Furthermore, the traditional public-safety market is so small that some fear that it will be difficult for the sector to realize the price points that have been promised.
Partnering with utilities potentially could help address all of these issues. Many utilities have significant fiber resources for backhaul and sites that are hardened similar to public-safety towers. Utilities also could provide an additional user base that would appreciate a hardened, dedicated network — users that would help traditional public safety realize the economies of scale it has envisioned.
These realities have caught the attention of FirstNet.
"We want to leverage existing infrastructure — for example, utilites," FirstNet board member Sue Swenson said during a speech last month.
Meanwhile, partnering with FirstNet also could make sense for utilities, which have little hope in the United States to secure the broadband spectrum necessary to support the valuable smart-grid applications that require a low-latency technology like LTE. Not only can these applications provide customers with conveniences like remote access to utility functionality, they can improve greatly the reliability of the power grid and can be used to help minimize the impact of unavoidable damage when disasters strike.
Utilities are particularly interested in deploying sensor technologies that can alert them to weaknesses in the power grid before it becomes noticeable to customers. Many of the most critical technologies that utilities use do not require much bandwidth, but they cannot be encumbered by latency issues and must be reliable — characteristics that FirstNet plans to include in its network.
Utilities have additional incentive to seek a new network for their applications as the telecom landscape is changing, caused by carriers seeking to retire traditional 2-wire and 4-wire phone lines, according to Mark Madden, Alcatel-Lucent’s regional vice president for energy, enterprise and strategic industries.
"If the frame-relay circuits and the POTS lines are being phased out by the carriers, that puts the utility in really a kind of a pickle, because those most-critical circuits to them are — generally speaking today — on leased POTS lines or frame-relay lines," Madden said.
"So they’re also looking now at, ‘How do I replace these things with something as reliable as I had before?’ It probably isn’t something [they] want to put on the carrier cellular network, because the first time that somebody wins the local high-school football game, suddenly the grid goes off, because they can’t get [the control signal through] to the system."