Big Telecommunications Hang-up for Utilities:Here Comes the Sun(set) of TDM, Analog and Frame Relay

What would happen if the telecommunication networks that utilities have relied on for decades to manage their electrical grids suddenly became unavailable? Big problems are coming sooner than you might expect.

Carriers (or telecommunication service providers) are planning to shut down their circuit-switched phone service-what we typically refer to as POTS, or plain old telephone service- very soon. Some carriers already have announced plans to do so.

This process, referred to as the TDM Sunset, has been in the works for some time, but now the move to shut down these inefficient, unprofitable and difficult to maintain networks has accelerated. Utilities need to take notice now.

Utilities have relied on these networks for decades to transport data from substations and other nodes on the grid and support applications such as tele-protection and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) that are essential to the safe and efficient grid operations.

Soon these networks will be unavailable. The TDM Sunset process will proceed at differing speeds in different geographies based on regulations and other factors. Nevertheless, the shift from outdated technologies is an economic necessity for carriers and will take place sooner rather than later. There is no incentive for carriers to maintain their legacy networks, so they will be dismantled.

Inevitably, utilities must find an alternative means of addressing their requirements, and it’s not as simple as choosing a new data service. Modern Internet Protocol (IP)/Ethernet technologies are very different from their circuit-switched predecessors.

Carriers need to move away from their legacy networks. AT&T, for instance, recently distributed a withdrawal matrix that clarified where and when TDM and frame relay services no longer will be available. Required timeframes for withdrawal are as short as 120 days. For a significant technology transition that could affect your entire business, that’s pretty short notice. Carriers already have begun sending notices that service will be discontinued in certain service areas. One utility described these notices as “beginning to fall like confetti on New Year’s Eve.”

Utilities must find a way to transition to higher-bandwidth, IP-based solutions that do not involve dramatic cost increases. Certain packet-based technologies such as IP/MPLS and Carrier Ethernet are well-suited to utility requirements, particularly in utility-owned networks.

Utilities need to ask themselves if it’s better to rely on service providers to support their critical requirements, or should they consider building out their own communications network and take control of their own destiny?

The cost of leasing services will increase as more advanced technologies are deployed. Overall, the case for building and maintaining a private network becomes more compelling as the costs of leased services increase.

In addition, it’s not entirely certain that service providers will be willing and able to meet utilities’ requirements in latency and other determinants, given their need to address concerns of various customer segments.

Utilities have some choices to make, and they don’t have long to make them. They can negotiate new agreements with service providers to support their mission-critical capabilities, or they can build out networks to address these requirements themselves. They cannot choose to do nothing. They must decide now.

Mark Madden is regional vice president of North American utilities at Alcatel-Lucent.

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