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Network Convergence Offers Savings and New Technologies to Utilities

Reducing the number of networks a utility owns and maintains can help reduce the overall complexity of the utility network. Gas, water and electric utilities are finding that this also makes it easier to manage and secure the network, while reducing operational costs.

There are a couple of pathways a utility can take to consolidate its networks. Multi-Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) is one technology solution that many utilities have chosen to converge their disparate networks. A second method involves electric, water or gas utilities sharing a communications infrastructure.

First, a look at MPLS. MPLS is a standards-based Internet Protocol (IP) network virtualization technology used by large network owner/operators to connect thousands of devices, sensors and users across a single cost-effective communications platform.

“One of the main advantages that utility companies are finding with MPLS is the ability to segregate and ‘tag’ mission-critical data applications apart from noncritical applications,” said Dean Siegrist, Director of Utility Communications for Black & Veatch’s telecommunications business. “This separation of data allows a utility to maximize its investments in a shared, physical infrastructure while ensuring high performance and reliability for its operational goals and objectives.”

Siegrist said that network convergence lowers the operational expense and maintenance costs utilities need to support mission-critical infrastructure, while providing scalability.

“The convergence of data network infrastructures using virtual, standards-based IP solutions is one of the best paths forward for a utility considering modernizing its network infrastructure,” Hill said.

According to a previous Strategic Directions in Utility Automation & Integration report, a key element in network convergence is interoperability – that is, the ability of different technologies to use the same network. As utilities continue adding new technology applications and services to their communications network, a standardized transmission and packetization protocol, such as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), will allow these different applications to communicate over a single, integrated network architecture.

“Moving forward with a network convergence program requires comprehensive planning and execution,” Siegrist stated. “Steps must be taken from start to finish to ensure that the implementation of connected technologies is approached with great care.”

He said the magnitude of the challenge grows since utilities still must maintain and operate legacy network technologies, such as Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) or Synchronous Optical Networking (SONET), until a full migration to the new network can take place.

“We have proven program and project methodologies to assist utilities every step of the way and to help utility leaders ensure that they are maximizing both their capital and staffing resources in a manner that reduces overall operational and capital costs,” Siegrist noted.


Network Sharing

Another area of opportunity to gain cost efficiencies is for electric, water and gas utilities to share communications infrastructure. Wireless infrastructure needed for remote meter reading is just one example of where utilities could collaborate to leverage the investment costs between utilities implementing similar functions.

Multiutility collaboration could be particularly beneficial for water utilities where extending wireless infrastructure may be cost prohibitive.

“By extending network access and reach, water utility leaders could improve watershed monitoring and the scheduling of resources. They could also reduce energy consumption and implement asset management programs in a cost-effective manner,” Siegrist said.

However, he noted that joint use agreements and regulatory hurdles will need to be addressed in order for utilities to implement such collaborative plans. In addition, optimizing a utility network requires thorough planning.

“We recommend that utilities develop a telecommunications master plan,” Siegrist said. “A telecom master plan outlines the strategies and business requirements that a utility has in place today, as well as its vision and anticipated future needs.”

In essence, the master plan provides a blueprint of what the future network will look like, he said. The plan will also provide utilities with a phased roadmap for efficient migration to the desired future state. The phases of the roadmap are often implemented over multiple years, with potential midcourse updates along the way.


Subject Matter Expert
Dean Siegrist: SiegristDA@bv.com  


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