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Next generation telecoms for utilities

For many years, power utilities have operated their own telecoms networks. These networks support a number of services that are critical to the operation of the power grid:

  • Control centre monitoring of alarms and status indications from critical parts of the grid
  • Automated protection systems to minimise damage caused by faults on the grid
  • Remote control of switchgear to enable rapid service restoration after a fault
  • Access control for substations and other sensitive locations
  • Operational voice services, including mobile communication with field staff

It is claimed that these critical services are now under threat as a result of fundamental changes that are occurring in telecoms technology. Telecoms networks are replacing legacy TDM technologies (such as PDH and SDH) with next-generation networking technologies based on IP, MPLS and Ethernet, and this has raised concerns that the very tight telecoms requirements for grid applications such as teleprotection can no longer be met.

Utilities are finding it increasingly difficult to buy TDM-based services (such as leased lines) from commercial telecoms providers, and so are seeking to migrate these services back to their in-house networks. However, the TDM equipment needed to expand their in-house networks is often no longer available because telecoms vendors are migrating their product lines to next-generation technologies. Even the spare parts and maintenance services needed to support existing networks are starting to be withdrawn.

Utilities are finding that they cannot hold back the tide of change

Power utilities operate critical national infrastructure. Mindful of their obligation to keep the lights on, these utilities have been reluctant to move away from existing TDM networks in favour of packet-based networks that seem to be less well aligned to their needs. However, they are finding that they cannot hold back the tide of change; the commercial telecoms industry has already embraced packet-based networks, and utility telecoms is a much smaller market than commercial telecoms. Whether they like it or not, utilities will soon have no option but to migrate to the new generation of networking technology.

Is this a disaster? Many in the power industry will claim that it is. However, the new networking technologies can deliver significant benefits to utilities, and the small number of utilities that have fully adopted the technology have been very positive about the experience. In this white paper, Mott MacDonald identifies the key issues and provides recommendations for how utilities should manage the migration from circuit-based to packet-based telecoms.

Download the Next Generation Telecoms for Utilities White Paper

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