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Why 5G can unlock the smart grid

This article was first published in Utility Week Flex

5G will bring increasingly reliable, fluid, and flexible connectivity and play a key role in making the smart grid a reality.

5G will benefit the utility sector

After years of hype, promise and more recently political controversy surrounding Huawei’s restricted role in the UK, 5G networks are now here and are being promoted as transformative technology that will change the way business works. But there’s often confusion and misunderstanding over what 5G really is, and what it means for utility companies.

5G will bring increasingly reliable, fluid, and flexible connectivity and play a key role in making the smart grid a reality. In particular it will provide enhanced mobile broadband services at typical speeds of over 100Mbit/s; greater density of devices, with a goal of 1 million devices per sq km and ultra-low latency communications, aiming to enable data to move across the network in a few milliseconds or less. These will make a real difference to the implementation of smart grid applications on a large scale.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the development of smart metering, demand-side management, e-mobility, integrated distributed generation and storage, as well as the integration of large-scale renewable energy systems, energy trading, dynamic pricing, and substation automation. These developments required the integration of advanced ICT (information and communications technologies) with utility sector-specific technologies and infrastructure, such as the electricity grid. However, this has been complicated by the need to accommodate the different latency, capacity requirements and massive range of variables, which has meant that several purpose-built networks have been needed. These often use proprietary technologies and are complex and expensive. As demand for smart grid applications grows, building and maintaining these kinds of multiple purpose-built networks won’t be sustainable. It will not be able to meet the growing cyber-security concerns.

5G can help with these challenges by accommodating the connectivity requirements of the multiple endpoints, which each have a key role in the smart grid. These can deliver the ultra-low latency and flexibility needed and do so at low cost. It can also strengthen security and control over the network by creating “slices” within a public network to provide a “private network” for specific smart grid use cases, which demand high reliability and security.

In addition, by providing standardised security measures across users’ devices and the network as a whole, 5G can give the utility sector the confidence it needs to deploy smart grid developments on a large scale. These benefits are not just around cyber-security, the 5G network can be used to manage drones, high definition video analytics, and mission-critical communication, which can enhance physical security.

Another advantage of 5G is the way it supports the co-existence and full compatibility between 5G and existing 4G networks. This reduces the need to change applications and devices and enables a smooth transition to the new technology. In particular, it can support IoT deployments that are optimised for low power and low data rates, meaning there is no need to replace an asset before its end-of-life.

Where are we in terms of 5G rollout?

5G is well on the way. All four of the UK’s mobile network operators have launched consumer services, with coverage focused in city centres where there are capacity pressures and operators are working together to extend 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the UK by 2025 with 5G to follow. 2020 will also see the release of new spectrum that is earmarked for 5G, enabling further network rollout.

However, there are still challenges to overcome. The finalisation of standards has not been completed and some enhancements will take years to test and deploy, and some are dependent on the availability of spectrum.

With potential deployment of masses of IoT devices, security remains a major concern in the utility sector as key advantages of the 5G network could be used by cyber attackers for more complex attacks. A proper end-to-end security strategy is needed to effectively protect devices, communication network and cloud applications against cyber threats.

5G will provide cost benefit, but the clarity of total cost of ownership is needed

Another advantage of 5G is the economies of scale it can bring through a shared infrastructure that serves multiple clients, saving the cost of building and operating numerous purpose-built solutions, which often use dedicated networks with multiple connectivity technologies. Utility companies can also leverage the value of a 5G ecosystem of networks, equipment, and applications built around global standards, taking advantage of a market structure that encourages competition and stimulates innovation by collaborating with multiple 5G service providers. Clearly, the investment will be needed to move from private networks built on proprietary standards to wider networks. But this cost should be outweighed by the benefits of using a platform that offers universal connectivity.

There’s still a couple of years before 5G will be deployed on a large scale, but the utility sector needs to understand now how 5G fits into its technology plans. It means identifying the right technical solution, but also the right business and deployment model; this will require a thorough analysis of the technology, the sector’s evolving requirements, business drivers, and regulatory pressures. That will ensure they are ready to take advantage of the real benefits it will bring.

May Li is a 5G smart solutions expert at PA Consulting

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