Xcel Energy is one of the latest utilities to announce private LTE plans, partnering with Motorola Solutions and tapping 900 MHz spectrum from Anterix.

Earlier this week San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) became one of the first utilities to start a private LTE deployment, using Nokia and CBRS spectrum.     

Xcel in September signaled plans to test private LTE with Motorola and Anterix, as reported by LightReading.

For Anterix, Wednesday’s news builds on its momentum with utilities including the company’s first major long-term 900 MHz lease with Ameren, announced in December. Anterix also is involved in a private LTE pilot with the New York Power Authority (NYPA). Anterix is the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum and last year the FCC authorized six-megahertz to be used for broadband.

Xcel Energy, which serves customers across eight Western and Midwestern states, is set to start the initial deployment of a private LTE network at two existing sites in Minneapolis.

Xcel plans to use the new technologies to help respond faster to local power outages, support communications for field operations, and smart meters to give customers additional data about their energy use.

The utility also pointed to cyber protection for the critical infrastructure and said the network could eventually be extended for more automation throughout urban and remote rural locations.

Motorola Solutions to be deployed include LXN 7900 fixed LTE 900 MHz infrastructure, alongside CBRS-based Nitro network products. This will allow voice and data to cross private LTE and existing LMR (Land Mobile Radio) systems.

“This new telecommunications technology will provide a basis for new solutions, which can improve grid operations, enhance system security, and ultimately deliver a better experience for our customers,” said Tim Peterson, chief information officer and SVP at Xcel, in a statement.

As utilities look to modernize and secure grid operations, a number have been exploring private LTE – an opportunity that’s also gained interest from carriers and vendors for enterprise applications.

RELATED: San Diego Gas & Electric starts private LTE build with CBRS spectrum

“In partnership with Motorola Solutions, we plan to demonstrate the efficiency, resiliency and security provided by private LTE and validate how private LTE can not only support modernization of the grid and operations for Xcel Energy customers in Minneapolis, but also pioneer the future of broadband communications for the entire utility industry,” said Anterix President and CEO Rob Schwartz in a statement.

Utilities facing similar challenges

Many utilities face similar challenges, and unlike other industries, they aren’t in competition with each other and more willing to share learnings and assistance, Anterix’s Schwartz told FierceWireless in an interview last month.  

This was a key takeaway, he noted, as Anterix met with utilities around the country before travel became more restricted last year.

“They’re really trying to solve a lot of the same problems individually,” Schwartz said. 

RELATED: Electric utilities eye private LTE, 5G for digital transformations

Movement has been made to bring common interests together, including formation of the Utility Broadband Alliance. Xcel is part of the alliance, as is Ameren, NYPA, Evergy, JEA, National Grid, and Southern Linc. Familiar names like AT&T, Cisco, Ericsson, Federated Wireless, and Nokia are among vendor members.

“It was the first place we’re able to get utilities to sit in a room and share thinking, about how to valuably deploy broadband,” Schwartz said.

Speaking in December with Ali Mohammed, director Digital Transformation Office executive office of the NYPA, about the private LTE pilot, he cited certain applications and needs for NYPA’s use of private LTE that were similar to Xcel.

Those include better field communication operations with voice over LTE, a smart metering program with real-time analytics to better support customers and ensuring infrastructure resiliency. NYPA recently touted an LTE-based drone pilot with Nokia, and is exploring multiple spectrum bands including 600 MHz.  

RELATED: Drones use private LTE to monitor power lines

Project activities in NYPA’s pilot with Anterix have slowed down a bit of late because due to rises of Covid cases in the region, according to Mohammed but are expected to resume. 

New Jersey-based Anterix sees itself in a position to be more than just a provider of spectrum, but an innovator and advisor to help bring together collective value of what Schwartz refers to as “network of networks.”

Utilities themselves are often familiar with and utilize private networks, but historically have not leaned on LTE.

Created by the founders of Nextel, Anterix has experience in what it takes to build and operate nationwide networks, with Schwartz pointing to the scale opportunity that comes from connecting different networks and solutions.

Going further than the Utility Broadband Alliance, he said, Anterix has experimental licenses with eight different parties, including NYPA. One of the licensees is the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), part of the U.S. Department of Energy. That project, specifically with seven utilities that form an industry oversight committee, are looking at ways to effectively work with distributed energy like wind, solar, and battery, among others.

Those are already becoming “a critical part of creating resiliency within our electric grid,” and even more so as we move into a new administration, Schwartz said.

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