Communications Network Management Opens Doors of Opportunity

Communications Network Management Opens Doors of Opportunity

By Steven Wood, Associate Editor

The communications infrastructure for a utility is one of the most important elements to ensure reliable electricity service to its customers. The ability to communicate between offices and for substations to be monitored, with all the elements communicating together, is necessary in order to have an effective communications network. The management of such a system will provide monitoring, control, diagnostics and network configuration and reconfiguration capabilities. It will also provide the option for utilities to provide additional products and services to their customers. This means the utilities with up-to-date networks will be prepared and ready to move forward as deregulation engulfs the industry.

Most utilities already have some form of communications network, entailing an internal and external voice system and a data system. Combining these systems into a fast and efficient system, usually using a fiber-optics network, is the goal of most utilities.

Utilities See Opportunities

Utilities are seeing an opportunity with deregulation on the horizon. By modernizing their communications network, they see the possibility to expand into new business ventures. “The predominant drivers for network upgrade include either a desire to achieve cost effectiveness in the running of their operations, or a desire to generate new sources of income through telecommunications deployment,” said Bill Foster, Nortel Networks director of marketing. “Because the core utility business is growing at a rate of less than two percent per annum, many utilities are looking for new sources of revenue.” Salt River Project (SRP) saw this opportunity to improve its network to provide better service and to generate new service capabilities.

Even though SRP had installed fiber-optic cable between substations dating back to 1986, there were some inherent problems with the network. The network was configured in flat rings without alternate paths for route diversity. This singular approach left them open to service interruptions. A large part of the network was still served by leased circuits, microwave radio and copper cable. These deficiencies could have led to a lapse of substation supervision if a cable was cut.

Communications Infrastructure

One popular configuration for a communications network, combining voice and data, as well as electrical interface, is a modular, network ring approach. The modular approach provides configuration flexibility, expansion and provides ease of maintenance. It will also provide the option for communication over optical fiber as well as communication over a digital medium such as synchronous optical network (SONET) microwave radio or higher order OC-N SONET multiplexers. SONET is an internationally recognized standard facilitating interoperability and system growth.

The network is built in rings, ensuring redundancy that will prevent a fiber outage. In a typical network, the communications and power grid communications networks are intertwined to provide constant contact with all the networks and to efficiently leverage fiber capacity (see figure). Substations can be linked back to the operations building for supervisory control, while a separate ring supports corporate voice and data traffic. SRP developed a four-year plan to complete 300 miles of optical fiber which will ultimately connect over 150 69 kV substations.

For the communications backbone, two OC-48 bi-directional rings provide connectivity to SRP`s power operations building. The network is configured geographically into OC-48 east and OC-48 west rings so that SRP can efficiently leverage fiber capacity and support current and future growth. The 150 substations are linked by multiple OC-1 rings that are subtended back to the OC-48 backbone and the power operations building for supervisory control.

The structure of the ring network ensures that if there is some sort of fiber failure, SRP can still maintain contact with all the substations.

SRP is also looking at the possibility of migrating to an Ethernet environment in its substations over the next few years. As the number of intelligent devices in the substation expands–such as digital fault recorders, intelligent relays and demand meters–the number of dial up lines to support each device becomes increasingly difficult to manage. By adding an Ethernet bridging unit, not only can SRP build a single, streamlined Ethernet network, but the intelligent devices are no longer limited to dial-up speeds.

A separate OC-48 campus area ring supports SRP`s corporate voice and data traffic. Ample capacity on the rings ensures the network can migrate to support future requirements, such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode, as needs arise.

Communications Network Management

According to Foster, most utilities have developed a network operations center, like any other telecommunications service provider, for managing the network. Utilities want the ability to monitor and test all locations down to a very basic level. In the SRP example, Nortel Networks was able to commit to delivering an integrated network management solution to meet SRP`s needs, given that the OC-48 Network Manager system is now being combined with the JungleMUX Network Craft Interface for single-workstation access.

“A significant cost in the operation of a telecommunications network, is the management of that network,” said Foster. “Most utilities can relate to that issue, for it parallels their experience in running an electric grid network. Therefore a network management system that provides visibility to the network down to the network element, and across all elements in the network, is a significant advantage to running a cost effective network.”

He also indicated that it is advantageous to select a product that will manage all elements in the network, even if the network is made up of different architectures such as SONET, DWDM, ATM, etc. Network management coupled with state-of-the-art network elements has given SRP a complete solution that provides tremendous reliability, flexibility and control.

Telecommunications Possibilities

The utility industry is going through an exciting metamorphosis, and many utilities are preparing for the increased opportunities with deregulation. New applications and capabilities are emerging. Having a network that is ready for the changes and unique opportunities will open many doors for utilities.

“Utilities that successfully deploy telecommunications networks will generate incremental sources of revenue for their shareholders, and at the same time, will create diversification in their businesses, that will reduce risk,” said Foster. “This will either make the utility more profitable in the next millennium or make the utility much more valuable in a takeover bid, as the industry consolidates through deregulation and competition. Either way, the utility shareholders win in the long run. A good example of a utility successfully deploying telecommunications for economic gain is Montana Power with its subsidiary Touch America. Montana Power`s stock price has jumped from $36 per share to close to $80 per share in the past year alone.”

Telecommunications will offer possibilities for utilities in the local and long distance markets, as long as they have kept there networks current. “The passage of the Telecommunications Act deregulated the local telecommunications services market and allowed utilities to approach opportunities in this market,” said Kim Antonnacio, Frost & Sullivan telecommunications industry analyst. In 1997, the utility wholesale telecommunications services market accounted for 64 percent of the revenues in the total utility telecommunications services market, according to a study by Frost & Sullivan. A large part of the market revenues were generated by Southern California Edison, Williams Communications Group, Touch America and American Electric Power Communications. In all telecommunications segments, almost 100 utilities have entered each market by teaming up with other utilities or competitive local exchange carriers, interexchange carriers, Internet service providers or wireless carriers. It is expected that the utility telecommunications services market will grow because many utilities are investing in the development of enhanced fiber-optic networks, according to the study.

Deregulation will increase the importance of improved customer relations, and an advanced communications network will provide the ability to access customer information quickly, even down to instantaneous information about their utility service. n

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