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More US utilities signal interest in private wireless networks

JEA, NRTC and Southern California Edison are among the newest members of the Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA), which this week announced it's now officially a not-for-profit association "dedicated to advancing and developing private LTE broadband."

The development is the latest in a series of movements within the US utility industry toward private wireless networking.

However, it's still unclear exactly how the space will develop considering utilities have a growing range of options to choose from for their private networks. A number have already signaled their intention to build their own networks with their own spectrum, while others may consider leasing spectrum, while still others may opt to simply purchase a private slice of a public network.

Nonetheless, it's clear that utilities are engaged in the issue. "As the first chairman of the Utility Broadband Alliance, I am honored that this team appointed me to lead the Alliance through incorporation and launch. The utility-led committees and the great technology vendor-members have done outstanding work building participation and providing new learning experiences for UBBA members," said Ali Mohammed of the New York Power Authority (NYPA) in an UBBA release.

Mohammed's appearance on UBBA's board is no surprise. The utility announced late last year it would test private wireless networking options with equipment from Nokia and spectrum from Anterix, Omega Wireless, Globalstar and AT&T, as well as CBRS spectrum.

Anterix, for its part, was instrumental in forming the UBBA, in part to groom potential utility customers for its 900MHz spectrum holdings. Anterix has already inked deals with Ameren and Xcel, two other UBBA members.

The appearance of JEA, NRTC and Southern California Edison among UBBA's membership rolls may also position Anterix for additional deals.

However, Anterix isn't the only game in town. For example, Ligado and Globalstar are also offering to sell or lease their spectrum holdings to utilities and others. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon are also working to sell private networking services to business customers, including utilities. And, separately, both AT&T and Verizon have also touted network slicing technology within the standalone version of 5G that would allow enterprises, utilities and others to purchase dedicated chunks of public network connectivity that only they can use.

Interestingly, AT&T has been working to break open the private wireless networking space for years, primarily through its attempts to sell or lease its WCS C and D Block spectrum holdings to utilities. Indeed, at one point, the company counted contracts with 15 different utility companies across 18 states in the US.

However, the recent CBRS spectrum auction appears to have killed AT&T's WCS efforts. A number of utilities around the country including Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and Alabama Power purchased spectrum in that event, likely to build their own private wireless networks with their own spectrum holdings instead of those from AT&T.

It's unclear how extensive the demand is among utilities for private wireless networks. Some have invested a significant amount into the space. For example, SDG&E has spent around $71 million on spectrum for its private wireless LTE network, and will initially use it to prevent wildfires by de-energizing downed power lines before they hit the ground.

Others, such as NYPA, are testing a range of private wireless applications, including drones that can monitor and inspect transmission lines and tracking systems that can analyze customers' energy consumption.

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

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