The wireless future of utility broadband


As well as bringing power to rural communities, utility companies can help them to flourish by supplying broadband. There’s often a strong business case: Commercialising existing network resources helps to offset consumer rates, and helps to make broadband financially viable in areas where a carrier could not justify the investment.

A utility might have one or both of the following wireless technologies in place to satisfy its own operational needs, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity and crew communications:

  • Microwave: This reliable technology is widely used for operational purposes (such as monitoring grid infrastructure). However, to deliver broadband based on microwave utilities would need to build telecommunications service features around it, including adding in subscriber management, and security to isolate consumer traffic from operational traffic. So while it is technically possible to use a microwave, it’s not practical for widescale residential broadband use.
  • Private LTE (pLTE): This is the most robust wireless solution available today. It has security built-in, and you can use network segmentation to separate consumer broadband traffic from your operational traffic. While there is a lot of excitement about 5G, and justifiably so, waiting for 5G may introduce a delay of two years. That risks losing out on the opportunities available today while allowing rural communities to fall further behind urban areas in access to public and business services. 4G LTE is mature now, will be around for a long time to come, and offers a smooth migration path to 5G.

In either case, the utility will need to check whether the spectrum it has available is viable for commercial services, including video streaming, and internet. It’s worth reading the small print in the regulation: Regulating authorities may restrict the utility from launching commercial services, or have caveats and additional requirements. In addition, the terrain, the foliage, and the geographical distribution of the customers must be analysed to see whether the band will offer the coverage desired for both internal and commercial use. Customers who have had no broadband to date might be happy with lower bandwidth, and those in established neighbourhoods might be best served by wireless because the time to deploy is shorter and it’s less labour-intensive to implement.

Piggybacking commercial services on an existing wireless network might seem like the easiest option. However, the greatest opportunity is in fibre to the home (FTTH). Delivering FTTH enables Gigabit Passive Optical Networking (GPON), providing a lot more bandwidth and lower latency than wireless technologies. GPON makes highly efficient use of the fibre because a single strand can be shared between up to 32 users using a passive splitter. Conservative estimates show that fibre has a lifespan of around 30 to 35 years, depending on the type of fibre, and we may see far better as fibre coatings and protective sheath technology improve. Fibre is a passive technology, so it’s easier to maintain than active technologies. Compared to mobile technologies, it suffers from less interference from water and humidity, and fewer outages caused by adverse weather. Operational and consumer traffic can be isolated on separate fibres for greater security.  

What about 5G?  That’s a great question. While 5G can provide the bandwidth necessary, it will need fibre to backhaul the content. See my first blog for more information.

When working on a greenfield development, fibre can be easily added alongside electrical cables, and can even be a selling point when new houses go on the market. Adding fibre helps to support smart meters, as well as consumer broadband. For existing communities, fibre can be added as the electrical network is maintained or upgraded.

Trenching customer lawns can cause complaints, add cost, and detract from reputation, though. In this case, a hybrid approach may be more suitable, where the same transport network could be used to serve both wireless and wired broadband. An LTE RAN could be operated from the edge of the fibre for some customers, while fibre is extended to the home for others.

Roll-out can be phased. Wireless networks could be offered temporarily, to provide broadband now while the fibre network is built out, enabling the wireless network to be reclaimed for operational use when GPON launches.

Moving into broadband presents exciting opportunities and fresh challenges. Power utilities that have had a geographic monopoly might need to market themselves for the first time. New skills will be required to support the network and its customers. Support might involve entering the home, as the utility’s responsibility extends beyond the meter, to set-top-boxes and routers.

At Nokia, we can help you make the transition. Nokia Bell Labs can share our experience with our carrier customers to help you to understand the business case, regulatory requirements, and technology options. We provide a complete suite of technologies to implement your broadband services and enable you to manage them through a single pane of glass, and with the support of a single supplier. Find out more.