Integrated Critical Communications Infrastructure for Smart Grid at Connectivity Week

This article is a summary of a very informative panel session that took place on May 25th at the Connectivity Week conference in Santa Clara, CA.  It was one of the best sessions I attended at the conference.  Note that the focus was on wireless- not wireline networks- to be used for Smart Grid Critical Communications.

Session Abstract:

Critical communications’ infrastructure that supports the likes of the military, emergency services and law enforcement is protected to serve the public good and is not subject to everyday market forces. Electricity is a strategic asset for all modern economies and adequate safeguards are needed to protect the grid in much the same way. One way of doing this is to allow utilities to share the dedicated spectrum and radio frequencies that support these essential services. The purpose of this session is to elucidate the rationale for utilities use of wireless networks to send and receive critical communications related to Smart Grid.

Moderator: Kat Shoa, The Directive Group


  • Jon Sessions: Chief Technologist, SAIC
  • David Witkowski: President, Wireless Communications Alliance
  • George Flammer: Chief Scientist, Silver Spring Networks
  • Howard Liu: Network Architect, Southern California Edison

Opening Remarks

Ms Shoa set the tone of the session by enumerating the key characteristics of critical communications infrastructure:

  • Supports military, emergency response, and law enforcement
  • Fundamental to public safety during emergencies
  • Spans broad geographic areas
  • QoS of utmost importance
  • Public vs. private networks
  • Security: physical security, data security
  • Integration/deployment timelines

She then introduced the panelists.  Due to technical problems, the order of presentations was changed from that listed in the program.

Howard Liu, Network Architect, Southern California Edison (SCE)

Southern California Edison Network Architecture
Southern California Edison Network Architecture

Howard’s presentation was most illuminating in learning what a cutting edge electric utility has done to build and operate its own network.  He suggested that utilities have to build their own integrated communications network for critical applications, e.g. disaster recovery.  They also have to develop a road map for executing their network strategy that depends to a large extent on the maturity of individual telecom technologies.  A key issue is integrating different physical subnetworks.

SCE is one of the nation’s largest electric utilities, serving a population of nearly 14 million people in a 50,000 square-mile service area in Central/ Coastal/ Southern California.  Their home grown telecommunication network spans 75,000 miles!   The SCEnet was built approximately 15 years ago (mid 1990s) for $110 million dollars. It has resulted in over a 300% ROI in avoided costs and increased revenue generation.  The SCEnet consists of several subnetworks:

  • 3,100 route-miles of Fiber optic cable
  • Microwave network: 3,792 path-miles
  • A private satellite network to provide network connectivity to over 300 remote substations (36MHz channels; 170 satellite phones)
  • 2,568 Hand-held Radios (A private Mobile Radio Network that is used for emergency communication)
  • 28,275 Netcom Radios (remotely control devices in the electric system, and Load Management radio system for Energy Demand Response)

These subnetworks collectively form an integrated network that enables SCE to be a much more productive and responsive electric utility.  Howard claimed that SCE’s fiber optic, microwave, and Netcom network have helped create one of the most automated and reliable electric grids in the nation. Automated portions of the electric system include:

  • 56% of SCE’s 900 substations
  • 41% of the 4,400 electric circuits
  • 100% of commercial and industrial customers (with Smart metering).
  • The SCE Network (see Figure) is supporting the real time monitoring of over 200,000 points in the electric grid every four seconds.

Whether to “lease or own” the network was a common theme at most Connectivity Week communications related sessions.  SCE believed it had to build its own integrated critical communications infrastructure to support critical applications.  Such a network had to provide low latency, broad coverage over the service area, very high reliability and availability at all times, but especially in the event of an emergency.

Click to view video interview with Ivan O'Neill of SCE
Click for Video Interview with Ivan O'Neill of SCE

But going forward, SCE would like to use a hybrid network approach.  One where SCE primarily relies on its own network for utility applications that have demanding requirements, like those listed above.  An unknown question is: whether SCE can rely on telcos to support these critical applicationsor should it build its own network by refreshing and expanding SCEnet?  If so, they’d like to lease a telco network to complement their own.

SCE still needs to evaluate the leased option for various Smart Grid applications.  They will try to be open minded and explore new possiblities as both technologies and business models change over time,  Howard believes the telcos understand “Smart Grid” is the next big area of opportunity, so they are gearing up to see how they can support a Smart Grid telecom roll-out. Some are creating new business units just focused on the Energy Sector.

Meanwhile, there may be some emerging 4G wireless technologies (TBD) which may be able to meet some utility requirements.  A private 4G network with licensed spectrum is under consideration at SCE.  They are trying to identify spectrum from 700MHz to 2.6GHz for that purpose.  The maturity of the underlying technology will be a key factor on whether or not SCE deploys it.

In conclusion, Mr. Liu re-iterated several key points:

  • SCEnet has been performing well for over 15 years
  • SCE’s Unified Communication Architecture anticipates all enterprise communications needs
  • SCE’s Integrated Critical Communications Infrastructure has a vision of a Layered Communications Architecture
  • Utilities had to build their own Integrated Critical Communications Infrastructure for Critical Applications
  • SCE will consider complementing that with a telco network going forward

Click here to read the next part of the article.

0 thoughts on “Integrated Critical Communications Infrastructure for Smart Grid at Connectivity Week

  1. Previously published articles on Connectivity Week at the global IEEE ComSoc Community web site:

    Future articles on other communications related Connectivity Week sessions will appear here at Viodi View.

    Please share your thoughts and opinions in the Comment Box below.

  2. Alan, thanks for the comprehensive article on just one panel from this event. Lots of great content that you covered.

    On aggregate, the utilities have huge data collection and transmission needs, but on the per home basis, it seems like the data is still relatively small compared to other demands, like video or Internet access. It seems like telco and cable companies could easily support the data rates, but, as you point out, the cultural differences between the organizations may be an initial barrier.

    Still, it seems like carving out spectrum just for utility and first-responder applications doesn’t seem to be the most efficient. I have an article and video that will soon be posted on TV “white spaces”. I wonder if cognitive radio, which is the heart of making that approach work, could go a long way to gaining spectrum efficiencies and making for a more efficient license regime?

  3. Alan,
    Like Mr. Pyle I was surprised that a utility would build its own network. Priority virtual networks within a large, highly redundant public network seems to be the preference for first responder infrastructure. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    1. Intro: Steve Weinstein is someone I look up to. We worked very well together on an optical network project at NEC Research Labs and he is my mentor on IEEE ComSoc matters. A past ComSoc President and long time volunteer, Steve is currently Chair of the ComSoc Strategic Planning Committee that I’m a member of.

      As both Steve and Ken suggested, utilities might be better off going to a public network provider for critical applications. But from the ConnectivityWeek sessions I attended, that will not happen in the near future. The main issue is lack of trust and concerns about avaialability (especially in an emergency/ natural disaster). Security is also an issue, especially for wireless mesh networks.

      In a forthcoming article, I will describe Silicon Valley Power’s network, which is currently all owned and managed by that utility. They actually have a fiber backbone for a service area that’s only about 18 miles in coverage area. I have particular interest in that utility, which has offered me excellent servcie and reasonable prices for the 41+ years I’ve lived in Santa Clara, CA.

  4. Steve’s comment reminds me of an article Alan wrote a couple of years ago regarding the fiber cut that affected a large swath of Silicon Valley:

    It seems like the best way to have redundant networks is to have multiple providers, with multiple networks in a market. This might be a strong argument for not allowing a T-Mobile/AT&T merger that I haven’t necessarily heard from those opposed to the merger.

  5. Thanks for an information packed articles with many new, previously undisclosed facts about utilities, e.g.building/maintaining or outsourcing their own private networks.

    To Ken’s point: Wouldn’t a utility be better off using a public wireless network (3G or outdoor mesh WiFi) for back-up of their own private network? What do they now use for backup/redundancy in the event of network or equipment failure?

    1. Klaus Bender of UTC (Advocate of Utility Telecommunications interests) writes there are several potential smart grid telecom networks: corporate enterprise backbone network, the field force voice dispatch/ mobile data terminal network, the AMI meter reading network, and the command/control network for the power grid itself.

      Evidently, utilities have different backup/redundancy strategies and mechanisms for each of these sub networks.

  6. Whatever happened to the “Public/Private Partnership” that FCC was promoting a few years ago for the 700MHz auction D Block? Such a wireless broadband network could be shared by commercial telco subscribers, public safety agencies and utilities. It seemed like a great idea to amortize buildout and operational expenses. Why didn’t that happen? Might it happen now that the smart grid is here?

    Thanks for the very informative article and provocative questions/comments.

    1. The FCC got no bids on the 700 MHz D-block, primarily because the terms of the public-private partnership did not make business sense to the private parties. The current state of the D-block is that bills are being circulated through Congress to gift the spectrum to public safety for use as a 5+5 FDD LTE band.


  7. Smart meters are seen as a key technology enabler for reducing the output of greenhouse gases, improving energy efficiency and increasing the percentage of renewable energy. Smart meters enable two-way communication between the meter and the central system. Unlike home energy monitors, smart meters can gather data for remote reporting.

    The network between the measurement devices and business systems allows collection and distribution of information to customers, suppliers, utility companies and service providers. This enables these businesses to participate in demand response services. Consumers can use information provided by the system to change their normal consumption patterns to take advantage of lower prices. Pricing can be used to curb growth of peak consumption.

    AMI differs from traditional automatic meter reading in that it enables two-way communications with the meter. Systems only capable of meter readings do not qualify as AMI systems. But the AMI does not specify a standard network interface or method for smart meters to send/receive data. How can smart grid ever reach economies of scale unless AMI network interface and related functions are standardized? And by whom?

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