Utility satellite communications blast off for Y2K and beyond

Tom D. Soumas Jr.


SatCom Systems

According to the North American Electric Reliability Council`s (NERC) preliminary report, the nationwide Y2K dress rehearsal for North American power utilities on Sept. 9 was a success.

One of the goals of the exercise was testing satellite communications that would be used as backup during loss of one or more primary voice or data circuits. These networks performed well throughout the drill, and will be a centerpiece of NERC`s strategy for the Y2K turnover period from December 1999 through March 2000.

Critical vulnerability

Early in the Y2K planning process, it was recognized that communications represented a potential weak point in the Y2K defenses for the North American power industry. NERC noted electric generation and distribution systems are highly dependent on voice and data communications systems, some of which are operated by telephone companies and other external service providers.

North American system operators currently utilize redundant voice and data communications media within their service areas to monitor and control the production and delivery of electricity. These include microwave, landline and cellular telephone and VHF radio circuits, many of which are leased from external service providers. The industry is heavily dependent on automated data networks to provide information flows from data acquisition systems in power plants and substations to control stations.

NERC`s Y2K Communications Plan calls for creation of a telephone hotline with satellite backup, linking 21 NERC security coordinators and the NERC/U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Y2K information center based in DOE`s Emergency Operations Center. These coordinators provide wide-area monitoring and security for the three major interconnected grids of North America. Regionally, 136 NERC control areas in North America provide full coverage of electrical grids in the continental United States and Canada.

Within each control area, operators communicate with plant operators and field operators using a variety of media. These include public-switched telephone systems, private utility-owned telephone systems, cellular phones, pagers, mobile VHF and UHF radios, microwave links and-increasingly-mobile wireless satellite terminals. Control areas coordinate to address operating issues among neighboring systems and with area-specified NERC security coordinators.

NERC`s primary security coordinators hotline is a telephone bridge provided by Bell Atlantic. For backup, NERC has deployed wireless satellite terminals at each of its security coordinator sites. These terminals are linked together in a “talk group” using a unique service called NetRadio, which uses dedicated satellite channels for push-to-talk, two-way, point-to-multipoint communications. This system works just like a terrestrial trunked mobile radio network, except that the repeater is located on a satellite some 22,300 miles in orbit about the earth.

The satellite service is being provided by SatCom Systems of Burbank, Calif., through the Canadian-licensed MSAT-1 satellite operated by TMI. The satellite “footprint” covers all of North America and offshore waters, including Central America, northern South America and the Caribbean.

In addition to the NERC hotline, SatCom Systems has received orders from four NERC regional reliability councils (RCC) and more than 70 organizations such as power pools and individual generating and distribution companies. These entities are setting up their own hotlines with links to NERC security coordinators.

This satellite network performed very well during the 9/9/99 drill, which involved numerous simulated events requiring backup voice communications to and from power plants, remote stations and control areas. Drills included loss of energy management systems, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, data networks and telephone lines. In one case, a utility in the Midwest communicated with the Ameritech Emergency Operations Center by satellite.

Countdown to Y2K rollover

NERC plans to continue regular communications drills at least monthly through the rest of the year. On December 1, SatCom Systems will activate special satellite channels for NERC, on each of four spot beams covering the North American continent. These special channels will be operated throughout the Y2K rollover period, until at least March 1, 2000. The NERC/DOE information center will become operational on a continuous basis at 1:00 p.m., Dec. 9, 1999, and will close at 4:00 p.m. on January 4, 2000, conditions and situations permitting.

Satellite communications systems and services are proving to be an effective tool for the Y2K rollover. Beyond Y2K, it is expected that the satellite systems will continue to be used by NERC and its RCCs as a vital backup network, which can be activated during natural disasters such as floods, storms, earthquakes and other such natural disasters that challenge the grid.

Many individual utilities are looking into the use of satellites as a replacement or augmentation for existing wireless communications systems. As more utility companies merge under the prevailing business climate, there will be increasing need to upgrade or replace existing two-way radio systems, which may be incompatible. Satellite-based systems can be deployed for a fraction of the cost of a terrestrial trunked radio network, avoiding for large capital investment in repeater towers, leased lines and other infrastructure.

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