IP+Apps Promises a Smarter Grid for Critical Utility Communications

By James Mustarde, Twisted Pair Solutions

Next-generation communications, particularly data transmission, will help move smart grid beyond concept to practical employment. Better data flow is opening the door to new sensing, measurement and control capabilities that can and will influence electricity production, transmission, distribution and consumption. Most significant is that this new paradigm will replace old top-down energy structures with bi-directional models, ushering in new roles and responsibilities for consumers, electricity providers and even automation technologies operations. But as Internet protocol (IP) network speeds improve and access to smarter voice applications grows, utilities can achieve a smarter communications grid now. 

A Look at Utility Operations Today 

As advanced voice and data sharing technologies and practices become instrumental in realizing a true smart grid, collaboration tools have become available that can help utility operations flow better. Communications processes and protocols vary between utilities as do the infrastructures and technologies that support them. Over time, a cache of desk-side dispatch and control systems, along with mobile field technologies, have grown. New digital radios have been added to older analog radios, smartphones, traditional landlines and other desk-top communications technologies, causing interoperability challenges to strain real-time situational awareness—smart grid’s foundation.

Many utilities struggle with basic unified communications that affect consumer confidence and the reliability, safety and ubiquity of services. These utilities should learn to walk before they run. Interoperability is a clear issue and is compounded by underlying communications architectures that vary wildly between utilities. Countless communications networks that can’t send or receive information beyond their own islands of operability exist. Asking these communications networks to contribute data to and act on data from other networks in real-time isn’t practical. This is, however, exactly what excites the world about smart grid.

Most utilities struggle to manage daily operations and intra-organization information sharing. Communication across heterogeneous landscapes, including field work and meter monitoring to customer support, impacts everything, from job efficiency to customer satisfaction and emergency response. Building the smart grid concept around a shaky communications foundation is a recipe for disaster. Utilities must improve two-way communications within their organizations. Only then can they consider expanding the information-sharing practice to consumers and other entities. When they can effortlessly share actionable data, society may acchieve energy efficiency, independence and sustainability. 

Making Grids Smarter Now 

It may take years to achieve this revolution. Once it is achieved, bi-directional communications will be instrumental to the larger smart grid concepts, including energy efficiency, grid operations, infrastructure optimization, power quality, reliability and accountable consumption management. In the meantime, utilities should strive to make their grids smarter by leveraging inexpensive software and advanced data capabilities of IP networks. Information flow in both directions makes a utility smart. It allows consumers, suppliers and new automated technologies to provide and respond to data for better, more cost-effective decision making. Companies that equip their operations to do this now will be left behind as others build their smart grid networks around these new tools and technologies.

These technologies will help utilities realize a two-way approach to communications that provide a less latent, more transparent dialogue between field workers, office personnel and customers. They can enormously impact utilities’ consumer relationships, helping them convey important messages about outages, operations and consumption, all of which impact overall consumer experience and brand loyalty.

With all of this on the line, why aren’t more utilities talking about software that unifies communications technologies, including radios and other field communications? Why aren’t they discussing the advantages of mission-critical applications that can transform ordinary smartphones into push-to-talk radios, giving utility workers urgent voice and data capabilities at their fingertips, from one dedicated device? 

Software as the Solution 

As utilities creep closer to a smart grid, a uniform set of architectures will be developed and standardized devices will emerge. Currently, however, utilities can achieve a smarter grid by better optimizing assets, improving operational efficiency, enhancing reliability and security and better managing power quality. This can be accomplished simply by making their communications technologies work better. A communications upgrade does not, and should not, have anything to do with hardware acquisitions. Rather, software can be deployed as a quick and cost-effective means to achieving more advanced, fully interoperable communications across the utilities continuum. And, it is this scalable, flexible foundation that segues into the smart grid.

Unifying disparate communications systems and devices will prepare utilities for more intelligent meter and consumption monitoring, better communications management across decentralized architectures and a more transparent dialogue with customers. Software is the only solution that enhances voice and data transmissions, improving real-time communication without causing grand-scale interruptions to current communications processes or damage to existing infrastructures. No other option allows utilities to leverage their existing investments for next-generation collaboration without heavy planning or expensive hardware purchases.

One such technology is WAVE, a voice-over-IP (VoIP) platform for delivering radio-over-IP (RoIP) for land mobile radio (LMR) integration and interoperability. Software solutions like WAVE can connect and extend critical voice, video and data communications by removing device, system and platform barriers. Software is also affordable and scalable. It goes anywhere, requires no new hardware and supports limitless clients, including smartphones, two-way radios, desktop IP phones and PCs.

Even if a utilities communications network spans multiple facilities spread over a wide geographic area, software can easily manage it. Software can manage complex webs of public and private networks including the mobile workers out in the field. For example, a lineman on a tree crew could use his radio to connect to a colleague’s PC to get directions or other clarifying information. He could then connect with the local agency’s field operator using a smartphone to coordinate public safety measures. Simply put, technology is available to bring together diverse communications technologies into a single, standardized, interoperable communications network.

More cost-effective dispatch control and operations is another benefit. Utilities can reduce the number of hardware consoles or replace them entirely with a single dispatch communicator. This client application, installed on a PC, helps utilities move away from expensive proprietary networks and instead utilize 2G, 3G and 4G networks. A utility could dispatch to thousands of people from a single personal computer, consolidating multiple systems into one console, dramatically improving workflow and customer service. This is an example of the revolutionary IP-based communications’ and applications’ changes that can help utilities achieve a smarter grid now, instead of waiting to build operations around new smart grid standards that may never come into fruition.

Software technologies allow utilities to leverage existing devices and infrastructures, including radio systems, which allows them to reduce operating and maintenance costs. In addition, utilities may repurpose existing equipment and even connect previously incompatible equipment, such as traditional trunked radios and hoot “Ëœn’ holler systems to their communications network. This type of software deployment allows utilities to achieve immediate performance improvements while preparing for the smart grid movement.

With software like WAVE, utilities are free to think on their own without being locked into one proprietary system or process for the sake of interoperability or system compatibility. For example, companies may address spectrum squeeze by introducing their older trunked radio systems. Without software, this cost-effective and easy answer wouldn’t exist. Unlike proprietary systems, software has no hardware preference. Embracing software to grow communications networks and realize interoperability is smart.

Critical communications solutions for utilities should not be limited to proprietary hardware acquisitions and upgrades. By leveraging IP as the intelligent voice and data transport, a better, more cost efficient solution for extending the reach and improving the quality of voice, video and data exists. New high speed networks, like 4G have caught the imagination of two-way radio users who look forward to enjoying more bandwidth for their local operations. The real opportunity for critical communications at any level, however, is the promise of a new portfolio of applications that includes secure voice, delivered as a product or a service, to a new set of devices that can do exponentially more than today’s radio handsets. A new set of players and software applications and technologies that approach unified communications differently and better is already changing the critical communications landscape.

James Mustarde is director of marketing for Twisted Pair Solutions. 

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