New York Power Authority calls itself the energy of New York, and for the past several years the utility’s strategic energy has been decidedly digital. “Back in 2013 we embarked on a journey to become the first end-to-end digital utility,” said Ali Mohammed, director of NYPA’s digital transformation office. The first major step on that journey was building 700 miles of fiber optic infrastructure. A large portion of NYPA’s fiber network is in parts of the state that don’t have reliable cellular connectivity, and much of its transmission network covers similar terrain. So the next big step in the utility’s digital transformation will be a private wireless network.
“We looked at a number of other technologies … but we decided to go with 3GPP because of cybersecurity standards,” said Mohammed. The utility partnered with Nokia to test use cases in 600 MHz spectrum owned by Omega Wireless, and it also worked with Anterix to secure access to 900 MHz spectrum for other use cases.
The first use case tested was drone flights to inspect power lines in what Mohammed describes as “one of the worst terrains in New York.” Right now manned helicopters are used to inspect the lines, so drones controlled by private LTE clearly represent a safer solution. Mohammed said NYPA wanted to test drones at 600 MHz versus 900 MHz because the lower spectrum band is better suited for controlling drones from remote locations while also downloading high definition video from the drone-mounted cameras. He said that eventually NYPA wants to use LIDAR to create alerts when flight patterns vary, because these variations could be early indicators of sagging power lines or other problems.
Other use cases
The second use case for NYPA’s private wireless pilot with Nokia was voice-over-LTE, which NYPA also tested successfully at 600 MHz. When technicians are working in areas without reliable cellular coverage they currently have limited communication, and must travel back to offices to retrieve work orders and drawings. With a private network, they will be able to download these and continue working.
Mohammed said his team is pleased with the performance of the pilot network so far. “We are going to go through our rigorous testing on capacity [and] bandwidth to ensure that this is the right spectrum for us, and once that is decided then we will go into a full scale deployment,” he said. As NYPA builds out its network, the utility hopes to use its existing infrastructure, such as poles and dams, for antenna attachment points.
Other private wireless use cases on the roadmap for NYPA include smart city applications, sensors deployed along the transmission corridor, and smart metering for corporate customers who need to meet conservation and sustainability goals. The private network will generate valuable data, some of which can be used in real-time. Karl Bream, VP and head of strategy for portfolio and alliances for Nokia Enterpirse, said utilities can use private wireless to detect and deactivate faulty power lines before they break and hit the ground, where they could spark fires. (This use case was a key driver of San Diego Gas & Electric’s private wireless deployment.)
Right now, NYPA is trialing private wireless to support its transmission and energy generation businesses, but down the road the utility could use private wireless in its energy distribution business, Mohammed said. NYPA did not acquire any CBRS spectrum in the recent government auction, but Mohammed said CBRS might be appropriate for certain metering applications at some point. “If we choose to use CBRS it will be within a fenced environment where we have high foot traffic,” he said.
COVID-19 and private LTE
COVID-19 has underlined the value of the private network, Mohammed said, by pushing his teams to be as efficient as possible while working remotely. “Having a dedicated network to rely on is important,” he said, adding that the pandemic has highlighted the value of augmented reality and virtual reality for training. High bandwidth use cases like AR/VR are facilitated by dedicated networks.
The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and “grid organization” for many utilities, Mohammed said. “There will be a number of utilities that are looking to pilot private LTE,” he said. “There are a lot of RFPs out on the street; there are a lot of us that have shown interest and have active pilots going on.”