Why a Private 4G LTE Network Can Be a Good Choice for Mobile-First Utilities

New connected technologies for network operations and workforce-related digital transformation initiatives are driving the need for more bandwidth in utility communications networks. Today’s utility networks, comprised of fiber, copper, and microwave transmission media — plus various land mobile radio (LMR) and other radio solutions — can’t keep up.

Recent FCC rulings in the CBRS and the 900 MHz spectrums make it possible for utilities to deploy private Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks that offer significant advantages over their current collections of single-purpose networks. Alternatively, utilities can purchase broadband network coverage from commercial telecommunications service providers.

Either way, upgrading today’s utility networks enable companies to become mobile-first in their approach to supporting the field workforce. End-to-end broadband coverage lets utilities take advantage of powerful, versatile rugged mobile devices like Panasonic TOUGHBOOK laptops, tablets, and handhelds. With a mobile-first approach, workers can stay connected to the home office, to each other, and to application systems that increase productivity, safety, and customer service.

We’ll look at the benefits of private LTE networks and factors to consider in making the “build versus buy” decision — but first, we’ll address which LTE technology to deploy.

The big question: 4G or 5G?

Although 5G is the hot topic of the day, the emerging consensus is that 4G technology is the optimal solution for private LTE utility networks now and for the next decade. It provides bandwidth that is more than adequate for utility video and voice requirements as well as broad geographic coverage and low-enough latency (as low as 50 milliseconds) for most operation applications.   

5G may be faster and have lower latency, but the cost to build and upgrade equipment is significantly higher. It’s a new technology, which is always more costly, and it requires much more equipment to cover the same area as 4G. Because 4G is well-established, there are many vendors in the marketplace and costs for network hardware have come down over time. Plus, there’s little risk of vendor lock-in or exposure to a vendor going out of business.

At the same time, because it is standards-based, 4G LTE provides a path to 5G or even 6G should the economics of deployment change or essential new applications emerge.

Support and security for new use cases  

Because LTE is integrated voice and data technology, it can support a wide range of operations use cases, from smart meters to distributed energy resources (DERs) to surveillance drones and cameras continuously streaming video about the status of network assets. Sensors on individual poles that monitor network integrity can isolate faults and, in the case of line breaks, turn off the power before the line hits the ground.  

All of these use cases require higher bandwidth connectivity to function and deliver benefits to the business, including lower operating costs, better grid safety and reliability, and greater ability to incorporate renewable energy sources into the grid, including rooftop solar. They also require the stronger cybersecurity benefits of an LTE network.

On its own, LTE is designed with high levels of cybersecurity protection, including advanced end-to-end encryption and support for device authentication, including subscriber identification module (SIM) cards. Utilities with private LTE networks can layer in additional security features such as user authentication with account IDs and passwords and monitoring. And they can build their networks without any direct connections to the internet, called “air gapping,” to prevent intrusions by external malicious actors.

Empower the mobile workforce

LTE data and voice communications make digital transformation for a utility’s field workforce possible, increasing productivity, enhancing safety, and reducing operating costs. Today’s utility field workers often still carry paper network maps and clipboards with the day’s work orders on paper forms.

Private 4G LTE network connectivity allows utilities to take advantage of the processing power in rugged laptops, tablets, and handhelds like Panasonic TOUGHBOOK to digitize paper-based processes. These multifunction devices can capture data in the field, eliminating duplicative data entry and reducing errors, and make digital maps available on demand.

For example, on a typical day, a line worker might use a rugged mobile device to receive work orders, review infrastructure maps, display information to customers, take and transmit photos of equipment, schedule repairs, sign off on one job and get directions to the next location.

What’s more, they can connect to online applications like outage maps while staying connected via voice to others in the field and at the office.   

Private 4G LTE networks: build or buy?

There’s one more issue to consider. Should a utility invest in building a private LTE network or buy its 4G (or 5G) bandwidth from a commercial telecommunications service provider? There are pros and cons to each approach.

One reason to build rather than buy is the economics of operating in a regulated industry, where CapEx investments and amortization are often more favorable than never-ending OpEx fees for cell service. Another reason to build is the resiliency offered by a fully private LTE network that is designed to survive events that might bring down service from telephone networks. In the event of a severe storm or other natural disasters, private broadband networks can keep working because they are independent of all other networks, including the grid.

Choosing to build a private LTE network also comes down to the matter of control. With its own network, a utility can determine how and when equipment is monitored, maintained, and upgraded if needed rather than being at the mercy of the provider. Utilities can ensure that even the farthest reaches of their grid are covered. And as we note above, utilities can add more security to their network infrastructure than they will get from a telecom provider.

On the other hand, buying cell service “off the shelf” has its advantages, one of which is speed. All it takes is signing a contract to give mobile workers 4G LTE connectivity. The economics of build versus buy will require careful analysis. Do the costs of construction, spectrum leases, maintenance, and hiring network operations experts for 24×7 coverage outstrip the projected cost of 4G cellular voice and data over the lifetime of a network?

The build versus buy answer will vary from company to company, but either way, utilities can be confident that 4G LTE is the right technology choice for modernizing existing private networks and providing their mobile workers with the bandwidth fully leverage today’s powerful, rugged mobile technology.

Learn more about the Panasonic TOUGHBOOK family of rugged mobile devices.