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Critical broadband networks for critical infrastructure: securing the power grid of the future

If there’s one thing modern society has come to rely on, it’s electricity. In fact, without power, modern society would quickly cease to function. Imagine a power outage caused by a storm or even a cyberattack that made water and fuel supplies dry up… We can’t afford to let that happen. And that’s why we need to reinforce our power grids with smart critical communications.

Global Business Development Director, Mission Critical Networks

power station

Global Business Development Director, Mission Critical Networks

Global Business Development Director, Mission Critical Networks

In recent times, we have witnessed an increase in natural disasters and proclamations of states of emergency owing to conflicts and exceptional events. The challenges that such incidents present prove that the provision of utility services is essential for ensuring people’s safety. The stories of cyber warfare and particularly cyberattacks on power grids that have been hitting the headlines lately are therefore of great concern.

The most widely publicized such incident was probably the incursion on Ukraine’s power grid in December 2015. Remote access to Ukrainian electricity companies’ supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems allowed malicious actors to open breakers at distribution substations, causing more than 200,000 consumers to lose power. The pressing need to defend against cyberattacks on the power grid should spur utilities into immediate action by implementing resiliency and security measures to prevent disruption to services.

Governments and regulators are imposing new environmental rules relating to the different operational parts of power plants. These regulations cover the holistic environmental performance of utilities, including emissions, electricity generation, energy efficiency, the restoration of service, and much more.

As a direct consequence of this, the characteristics of the power system are changing, imposing new paradigms on traditional grids and presenting some significant challenges. The need to implement end-to-end intelligence in electricity networks is becoming increasingly evident.

Lately, we have observed that the deployment of advanced connectivity systems is still in its early stages in many countries, and that it is primarily driven by government policies and regulations. Utilities must respond to the challenge more proactively since modernizing their networks is no longer just an option: it’s a critical need.

Why critical broadband private networks?

A recent Ericsson case study named Bringing 5G to Power addresses in detail the business value associated with introducing mobile connectivity into electricity distribution networks. The study reveals that to deliver all the benefits required by regulators and face the changes imposed by the market and consumers, a truly smart grid needs a smart critical communications network.

The figure below illustrates the main needs that must be addressed by smart grids.

smart grids


The requirements that today’s distribution service operators (DSOs) have to meet can be divided into three major categories:

First, there are the requirements that could be summed up as resiliency and reliability. Power distribution networks need to be:

  • self-healing: a smart grid should mitigate power outages and service disruptions automatically
  • resilient to disasters:  smart grid operators need to isolate affected areas and redirect power flows

Second, there are considerations relating to supporting new power generation and storage resources. Typically, these considerations comprise requirements such as:  

  • adapting to all generation and storage options: by interconnecting and supporting different distributed generation technologies at local and regional levels
  • enabling higher penetration of intermittent power-generation sources: smart grid technologies must enable power systems to operate with a greater quantity of renewable intermittent energy resources
  • enabling new services, products and energy markets: the introduction of small-scale power generation [BvdM1] for local markets, which requires improvements to be made to transmission and distribution grid management
  • motivating consumers to participate actively in the operation of the power system: by providing mechanisms for users to contribute to reduced energy consumption

Third, operational efficiency prerequisites should be taken into consideration. Mainly for environmental reasons, power grids are pushed to:

  • optimize assets and utilization: reducing waste and maximizing the use of lowest-cost generation resources, and improving the use of existing grid assets while reducing grid congestion and bottlenecks
  •  provide higher power quality: assuring a more stable power supply by using smart grid technologies which will reduce downtime and prevent high losses

In recent years, many studies have been conducted, with a principal focus on assessing LTE and 5G cellular broadband technologies and comparing them with other alternatives.  Most of these studies have showed the growing role 5G has to play as the “best fit” for addressing these emerging challenges and use cases.

Compared with all other connectivity technologies, only large area private cellular networks offer the following benefits:

  • They ensure a cost-effective strategy for connecting grid assets over a wide geographical area – especially if utilities collaborate with service providers to reuse the mobile network operator’s assets
  • They guarantee technology evolution in alignment with the long life-cycle considerations of the utilities segment
  • They enable the implementation of utilities’ critical functions in a resilient, reliable and secure way

Another advantage of having a non-public network is that the utility has full control and ownership of it while benefiting from standards-based, future-proof technology. And so, a grid operator is able to configure its network and manage its operations in a dynamic and flexible way while avoiding the heavy costs associated with all the other alternatives for wide-area connectivity.

A future-proof solution

The communications network and the energy network are becoming increasingly interdependent. In order for a smart grid to be dynamic, secure, and resilient as well as delivering all the benefits mentioned above, it needs a similarly smart communications network.

The distribution grid of the future needs to be built on flexible and reliable infrastructure that can handle the fundamental changes happening to the generation and distribution of power, as well as the new patterns of consumption. And as the smart grid and smart communications network begin to go hand in hand, it will be possible to face the challenges that lie ahead.

Recommended reading       

5G and Wi-Fi 6: Choosing the right technology for the job, GlobalData (May 2019)

Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Next Generation Hotspot boost industry confidence in Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Alliance press release (October 31, 2018)

Evolution from LTE to 5G: Global Market Status, Global Mobile Suppliers Association (updated March, 2019)

The State of Wifi vs Mobile Network Experience as 5G Arrives, OpenSignal (November 2018)

Read more in our Ericsson IndustryLab report, Bringing 5G to power

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