Utilities face major overhaul of mobile radio systems

October 23, 2006

3 Min Read
Power Co. Goes Walkie-Talkie

Like many electrical-power utilities across the country, Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp. faces a wave of industry-changing developments breaking over the next several years. The parent company to seven investor-owned power companies across a three-state area, FirstEnergy serves 4.5 million customers across a 36,000-square-mile region, and the next five to 10 years its business is set to change dramatically as a series of demographic, technological, and regulatory shifts wash over it.

The first, and most pressing, is that its field communications system -- crucial to keeping its hundreds of power plants and thousands of substations running and smoothly and insuring power to it customers -- is obsolete. Like many electric-power generators, FirstEnergy has for years relied on a land mobile radio (LMR) system to keep its field workers up-to-date and informed of outages, work orders, and the like. Data communications were essentially non-existent. As with many other utilities, FirstEnergy was faced with either a massive upgrade, from an analog to a digital network, or a complete replacement of the LMR system.

Two related developments make that technology upgrade more urgent: the impending turnover of a sizable percentage of FirstEnergy's workforce (and with it the loss of a big chunk of institutional memory), and new energy legislation that makes remote automation of fixed infrastructure, including electricity meters and substation monitoring equipment, mandatory. (See Toughbooks Big in Boonies.)

Realizing that the own-and-operate model for remote voice and data communications would not serve it in future, FirstEnergy settled on a digital wireless system from Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), using Nextel's Direct Connect network and ruggedized handheld devices.

"The utility industry is really going through a transformation," says Ed Davalos, national director of utilities for Sprint. "The whole industry is at a crossroads in terms of what to do with these major market drivers coming down the pike."

In addition to outdoor coverage for FirstEnergy service teams, Sprint will also provide indoor coverage for FirstEnergy facilities including offices, repair yards, dispatch sites, and data centers.

The i325 handheld devices used by FirstEnergy will run over Sprint's Integrated Digital Enhanced Network (iDEN), inherited from Nextel and based on Motorola technology that provides the benefits of both cellular coverage and trunked radio, in which multiple radio channels are pooled together and the frequencies are allocated according to traffic levels. The devices also offer limited data functionality; mobile workers needing more powerful data-based services, such as mobile field worker applications, will like use ruggedized PCs with Sprint EV-DO cards.

In addition to having the world's largest walkie-talkie subscriber base, with over 17 million users, Sprint also offers a back-up option that works between compatible phones within a range of about six miles.

The i325s sell for $239 at retail, but large-scale deployments like the FirstEnergy contract entail significant discounts.

"If they owned their own system those types of devices used for private networks go for from $1000 to $3000," states Davalos. "All of a sudden they're looking $200-$300 and they're getting more functionality. And that all goes into the ROI model."

With many of the 3000-plus electrical-power utilities in the U.S. facing similar upgrades or replacements in the coming decade, the sector represents a significant market opportunity. Big carriers like Sprint and Verizon Wireless will battle in this space with more traditional manufacturers like Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and new entrants like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) (which offers an IP-based LMR system) and Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL). You can expect more utility communications announcements in the next couple of years.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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