Spectrum for Utilities

Telecoms is the basis of an intelligent grid:

New electricity, gas and water networks of the future will be far more dynamic and flexible than the ones of the past. This is achieved by applying new ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) to the physical infrastructure. The heart of this new ICT is telecoms. In many cases, telecoms will be facilitated by fixed infrastructure including copper pilot cables and fibre running along the same route as the electricity, gas and water (clean and waste water) pipes and cables.

Radio systems

In many cases, for resilience, cost and speed of deployment, radio will be the preferred choice. But all radio systems have one essential ingredient – radio spectrum. This may be:

  • ‘licence exempt’ spectrum, used for short range devices such as WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, etc.
  • Spectrum purchased by telecoms operators such as the mobile phone companies to provide cell phones and mobile data systems.
  • Radio licences sold by the government for individual radio links.
  • A block of radio spectrum so that the user can operate their own telecoms systems.

Utilities use a range of services to upgrade their networks to ‘smart’ systems. In some cases, commercial services will meet all their needs, but public telecoms networks usually have larger markets in mind, and those customers don’t have the same demanding requirements in terms of availability, resilience, latency, geographic coverage etc which are essential for a utility. Thus, on many cases around the world, utilities are self-providing or collaborating to build telecoms networks will meet their essential needs, and where they have control over the operation of the network.


Spectrum is the key

To be able to build radio systems, you need access to radio spectrum. This is an increasingly scarce and valuable resource in most countries, so utilities need to present a compelling case for spectrum if government is to grant them access to it.

To convince government that valuable radio spectrum should be allocated to utilities, they need to demonstrate:

  • The social value to their society of reliable, affordable and sustainable utility services, and how operating their own telecoms systems will improve social welfare.
  • The economic value to reliable utility services to business, and how this improves development goals and attracts investment.
  • How the spectrum will be used efficiently so that this valuable national asset is not squandered.
  • How the utilities will work together to share the spectrum to improve the effectiveness with which it is used, and to avoid the government regulator having to make choices between which utility gets spectrum, and which does not.
  • The overall national benefit of this approach.

Collaboration is vital

Radio spectrum does not respect national, regional or township boundaries. It’s also technically complex to co-ordinate radio systems to prevent interference. As there is never enough spectrum for every company requesting spectrum to be given what they ask for, Government spectrum managers want sufficient detail about proposed applications to ensure spectrum is being used efficiently.

Utilities need to collaborate and present a coherent case to regulators if they wish to be granted access to spectrum. Collaboration works across a number of areas to improve service and reduce cost, such as:

  • Buying blocks of spectrum which are then allocated and co-ordinated amongst several separate users.
  • Sharing infrastructure – radio sites, masts, transmitters, antennas, back-haul, generators etc.
  • Joint networks to enhance radio coverage and capacity.
  • Procuring a single network solution from a commercial service provider using utility owned spectrum.

As utility networks become increasingly interconnected, even across national borders, they become interdependent for the integrity and continuity of service delivery, making visibility and transparency of network status between entities more important to maintain confidence.