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Utility giant Xcel to test private LTE network with Motorola Solutions

Xcel Energy – a massive gas and electricity provider across Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin – said it plans to test a private wireless LTE network in the 900MHz spectrum band using equipment from Motorola Solutions.

The news serves to yet again underscore utilities' interest in building their own private wireless networks, including those using LTE technologies. The topic has grown into a major issue for wireless network operators hoping to sell products and services into the sector, as well as equipment vendors hoping to expand their customer base beyond standard commercial mobile network operators like AT&T and Verizon.

Indeed, Ericsson just Friday announced its $1.1 billion plan to purchase Cradlepoint, a US company that sells wireless products, including private LTE networks, to businesses ranging from retail to transportation.

"Xcel Energy is exploring the use of 900MHz LTE networks for various applications in support of its affiliates' electric and gas utility operations," the company wrote in a recent FCC filing requesting permission to conduct the tests. "These applications include Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI) backhaul, SCADA, Distribution Automation (DA), and LMR to LTE Mission Critical Push-to-Talk (MCPTT) convergence."

The company said it hopes to use a 3X3MHz allocation in the 900MHz band owned by startup Anterix for the tests, which it wants to conduct in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties in Minnesota. After years of working on the topic, Anterix earlier this year received FCC permission to operate LTE in its spectrum holdings. The company is now working to ink spectrum leasing agreements with a number of utilities including Southern Company, the New York Power Authority, Exalon and Duke and Ameren.

"Xcel joins a host of IOUs [Investor Owned Utilities] who are looking to broadband to reduce costs, increase efficiency, and engender greater command and control critical infrastructure," wrote the financial analysts at B. Riley Securities in a report on Anterix to investors this week. "Indeed, of the seven experimental licenses granted to date, five are IOUs covering ~20% of what Anterix sees as national spectrum value. Further, we have UPS (implementing a private 900MHz LTE network in its Billings, Montana, distribution facility) and the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as non-IOUs considering 900MHz broadband."

Xcel's move toward Anterix follows its 2019 decision to shutter its private wireless WiMAX network. "While we believe WiMAX is a viable technology, changes in FCC rules and regulations meant we needed to transition away from WiMAX to a public LTE," Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo wrote recently in response to questions from Light Reading.

Aguayo confirmed Xcel is using public LTE services from the likes of AT&T and Verizon. It's likely that Xcel's interest in a private LTE network with spectrum from Anterix and equipment from Motorola Solutions could reduce the amount of traffic it would put over a public LTE network.

To be clear, Anterix isn't the only source of spectrum utilities have considered. For example, Ameren has been testing a private LTE network with equipment from Nokia and CommScope and spectrum from AT&T and Anterix. And a number of utilities including Alabama Power, Southern California Edison and Sempra Energy recently purchased spectrum licenses in the FCC's 3.5GHz CBRS spectrum auction.

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

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