Portland General Electric inked a new deal with startup Expeto that company executives said will give the utility the ability to use the best connection for each of its applications.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

January 20, 2023

4 Min Read
Utility provider PGE takes an 'omnicarrier' approach to networking

Larry Bekkedahl, a top networking executive with utility provider Portland General Electric (PGE), has considered building a private wireless network for his company's needs. He has also considered using an existing, public network.

But via a new partnership with startup Expeto, Bekkedahl said he's pursuing both strategies at the same time. For him, it's the best of all worlds.

"We like to refer to that as an 'omnicarrier'," he said of the company's new networking approach, which involves using an array of options – whether it's a wired network owned and operated by PGE, a public wireless network operated by one of the big 5G carriers, a mesh network in unlicensed spectrum operated by PGE or a private wireless network running in licensed spectrum that's owned by PGE.

"I want to use the best signal that's there and available," Bekkedahl explained.

PGE's networking needs span 4,000 square miles and 250,000 connected grid elements. The company also must cover 930,000 utility meters serving 2.5 million customers.

Figure 1: (Source: Expeto) (Source: Expeto)

Bekkedahl joined the company roughly eight years ago after a long career spanning domestic and international utility providers. His takeaway from all that experience?

"I don't want to be subject to being disrupted," he said, pointing to the potentially devastating effects of extended power outages.

As a result, "we as the utilities have been really high on private networks for some time," Bekkedahl said, mainly because such networks can provide high levels of reliability. Indeed, other utilities – from Evergy in Kansas and Missouri to Xcel in Colorado and elsewhere – are moving toward their own private wireless networks.

PGE already operates its own wired network in select locations, alongside a mesh network in unlicensed spectrum covering some metering locations, as well as a broader wireless network running in the company's licensed 700MHz spectrum holdings. That network is designed to allow the company to monitor its operations and communicate with workers in the field.

Now, though, Bekkedahl is looking at a future that could include a much wider range of connections, and a broader scope of needs. For example, customers with solar panels will need to feed some of their electricity back into PGE's grid. But the utility at the same time might need to restrict electric vehicle charging to specific times of the day and night, based on overall grid demand.

"You've got to have communications," Bekkedahl said. "It's really important for us to think about how we connect all those devices."

He added: "You can see a different world coming."

Planning for the future

Bekkedahl said he evaluated all the options available to PGE. For wireless networking, that includes spectrum leasing options from companies like Anterix, as well as managed services from companies like AT&T. Each approach has its perks and drawbacks.

For example, Bekkedahl said it might cost PGE half a billion dollars upfront, and several million dollars annually, to build and maintain its own far-reaching private wireless network.

But PGE's new deal with Expeto will allow the company to select the best option for each use case and manage everything through one console, he said. Specifically, Expeto's platform will allow PGE to operate its own private wireless network where it's financially appropriate and to use public wireless connections from AT&T, Verizon and others where that makes more sense. Bekkedahl said the company can also run its own wired network through the Expeto platform.

Flexibility is key because each connection is different, he explained. For example, a critical component along PGE's utility line might need a connection with less than 10 milliseconds (ms) of latency in order to shut off power before a disruption.

That kind of connection is best served by PGE's own wired network, according to Bekkedahl. Indeed, the latency speeds provided by the public wireless network operators average around 31 ms, according to Ookla's latest findings. However, for a solar panel array, a wireless connection running over a public network might be the most efficient solution, he added.

"Are there ways to leverage the systems that are out there already?" Bekkedahl said. "My hope is that we find better and better ways to leverage that existing expertise ... and not have to become another carrier."

He added: "We're avoiding having to make that huge investment right up front."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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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