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Memphis utility puts $27M toward spectrum for private wireless network

MLGW is spending $27 million on 600MHz spectrum, with another $31 million allocated to put that spectrum into action. The utility's goal? A private wireless network for security, monitoring, communications and other applications.

Mike Dano

January 10, 2024

5 Min Read
Symbolic image Critical infrastructure, blackout danger, cyberterrorism, extra-high voltage lines, 380 KV, at the Gohrpunkt substation, the power come
(Source: Jochen Tack / Alamy Stock Photo)

Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW) is spending $27 million to buy a chunk of 600MHz spectrum in the pursuit of a private wireless network for its utility operations. The company has also allocated $31 million for construction of the network, with plans to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for the project sometime this year.

"We acknowledge the substantial advantages associated with adopting this technology and plan to leverage it to fulfill all our private wireless requirements," the utility wrote in response to questions from Light Reading.

MLGW provides electric, gas and water services to around 439,000 customers in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee.

"Our primary goal is to modernize the Distribution SCADA [Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition] system, improve Distribution Automation, and establish a robust backhaul communication for our existing AMI [Advanced Metering Infrastructure]," the company said of its planned private wireless network. "We envision its application across a spectrum of internal MLGW wireless needs, encompassing the monitoring of streetlights, distribution poles, transformers, water distribution pressure, gas distribution, industrial gas metering, under-the-glass metering, push-to-talk services, security cameras, workforce management, and more."

MLGW is just the latest US utility to embark on plans to build a private wireless network for monitoring, security, communications and other applications. Other utilities engaging in similar pursuits include Xcel Energy, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), Exelon, Duke Energy, New York Power Authority (NYPA), Evergy and Portland General Electric.

Owning spectrum

As noted by spectrum-monitoring company Spektrum Metrics, MLGW filed documents with the FCC to purchase 600MHz spectrum from Charles Townsend's Bluewater Wireless. In the filing, MLGW said it would use the spectrum "to launch a private wireless network to enhance its operations and internal communications systems."

The company added: "Among other things, this network would enable MLGW to modernize its power grid for enhanced power distribution, which will reduce the risk and customer impact of unplanned outages and enable assignee [MLGW] to restore service to the public more efficiently."

In response to questions from Light Reading, MLGW officials said the company considered a variety of options, including leasing spectrum from a company such as Anterix. Anterix has built a business around licensing 900MHz spectrum to utilities, but the company has hit some stumbling blocks recently.

Ultimately, MLGW decided it was important to buy its own spectrum rather than renting it from another company.

"Emphasizing a long-term strategy, MLGW aimed to own spectrum resources rather than lease them, ensuring sustained control over its deployed assets," the company wrote. "MLGW ultimately made the decision to fully own and operate all aspects of its wireless 600MHz network for security, resilience, reliability, life-cycling and quality of service for its own priority and use-cases."

The company added: "MLGW will continue to monitor its spectrum and wireless options to ensure its communications network reliability meets customer expectations to have service dependability required for a modern grid."

MLGW said its next steps will be to decide what kind of network to build, including potentially a 4G or 5G network. It will also look at possible vendors for the equipment it will need. 

Like other utilities, MLGW already owns some telecom assets, including wireless mesh networking systems and fiber. But the company is hoping to build a more comprehensive wireless network with its new 600MHz spectrum holdings.

The bigger picture

Broadly, the private wireless opportunity has galvanized interest from many telecommunications vendors, ranging from network operators like Verizon to equipment suppliers like Nokia to cloud companies like Amazon. Their hope is that a wide variety of customers – city governments, fleet management companies, manufacturing operations, mining concerns and others – will see value in building their own small-scale wireless networks.

Utilities have long been a topic of discussion in the private wireless networking space. As Light Reading reported in 2019, the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), a trade association, commissioned a white paper outlining how utilities might play in a 5G world.

In recent years, a number of utilities have either tested private wireless networking technologies or have begun deploying them. For example, SDG&E is hoping to use its private wireless network to prevent wildfires by instantly turning off downed power lines before they can cause sparks.

Avangrid, another utility, told the FCC that it's looking to use a private wireless LTE network for applications including tracking the usage of renewable energy from such sources as solar and wind.

In response to such efforts, vendors are lining up to supply utilities with the spectrum and equipment they may need. Ligado Networks, Globalstar and Anterix are offering spectrum, while Ericsson, Nokia and others are selling equipment. Companies like Expeto provide the management software necessary to handle wireless network operations.

But the space remains challenging. For example, AT&T and Nokia worked for years to sell private wireless networking services to utilities before ultimately giving up a few years ago.

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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