When AT&T filed a federal regulatory petition in late 2012, the specter of the termination of the leased landline services utilities have relied on for decades became reality, and exposed a substantial risk to utilities not prepared to initiate a planned transition to IP Networks.
This was not an isolated filing. Telephone companies have begun to phase out circuit-switched Plain Old Telephone Service and their other traditional copper-based landline telecommunications services used by utilities to monitor and control distribution assets. These links transport critical data from substations and other remote locations to reliably keep the lights on and water flowing.
Risk exposure to the utilities is further underscored by a recent AT&T plan to withdraw all non-Ethernet access channels , all non-Ethernet private lines, and Ethernet private lines slower than 600 megabits per second.
Importantly, the announcement makes clear that utilities will have as little as 120 days notice to discontinue a service component while simultaneously requiring utilities to provide 12 month notice to discontinue the same service. One Utilities Telecom Council member recently stated that they were told to have their IP transition completed no later than 2020. That is a short five years, keeping in mind that this is a process of rolling discontinuances across multiple service providers.
Along with discontinuance of these serial-based, leased telecom circuits, comes the end of reasonably priced, proven, reliable data circuits that utilities use to provide operational data and control via SCADA, metering networks, and protective relaying between substations. New services available to replace these pathways when replacement options are available are not like-for-like swaps for utilities. This transition requires a thorough, carefully planned and executed migration strategy.
Electric service reliability and operational efficiency will be dramatically affected if these circuits are disconnected without an adequate replacement connection. And while upgrading to higher bandwidth IP-based solutions will likely increase monthly O&M costs, the cost and risk exposure of reacting to a 120-day notice will have a far more dramatic impact than a planned program of network migration.
Packet-based technologies such as MPLS and carrier ethernet that utilities are pursuing are generally perfectly suitable for utility use. They have been deployed in utilities for critical operations including system protection, and have been shown to be effective, reliable and financially attainable. These services can be engineered to be deterministic and provide the same level of reliability and potentially greater levels performance—particularly in a private network.
The only way to mitigate the risks to utilities is to initiate a comprehensive utility communications network migration. UTC has developed a series of white papers, educational materials, and a network of industry stakeholders focused on assisting utilities in what may be the most dramatic transformations to its communication infrastructure in recent memory, a new network foundation that will position utilities to deliver reliable, affordable services well into the mid-21st century.
Connie Durcsak is president and CEO of the Utilities Telecom Council.