Utility poles, street lights and rights of way may all become valuable, revenue generating assets

By Richelle Elberg, principal research analyst at Navigant Research. The opinions represented in this piece are independent of Smart Cities Dive’s views. 4 Jan 2018

I once wrote in a Navigant white paper that utilities need to stop building application-specific, siloed networks and think more holistically about their future communications needs. With the proliferation of distributed generation (DG), electric vehicles (EVs) and increasingly competitive operational environments, a utility’s ability to react quickly to shifting market dynamics will become critical to its long-term success.

A key to that nimbleness will be a robust communications network. And while, at the time we published our white paper, 5G was still fairly conceptual, today the next generation of wireless communications is in testing and pilots by carriers worldwide. Utilities should not overlook the possibilities that a 5G network will open as they consider long-term networking plans.

A three-pronged network of networks

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body will finalize the specifics of 5G networks in 2018, but already a great deal is known about the technology. 5G networks will offer three types of networking capabilities: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), massive machine-type communications (mMTC) and ultra-reliable low latency communications (uRLLC).

The Three Legs of 5G Networks
Credit: Navigant Research

EMBB will provide significant improvements over existing 4G mobile networks. It promises up to 10 Gbps maximum throughput (actual user experience will be lower), latency of less than 5 ms, and support for up to 100 times more end users. Large venues such as stadiums and airports may be early beneficiaries of eMBB services. Cell sites with very small form factors — the size of a tablet or softball — will be deployed in a very dense configuration for eMBB. For example, in a stadium, a tablet-shaped small cell could be located under seats as frequently as every 10 feet.

URLLC will be used for mission-critical applications where guaranteed latency of 1 ms is essential. Examples of uRLLC application include automated (self-driving) vehicles, virtual reality for applications such as remote surgery, or in the smart grid context, teleprotection or wide area monitoring and situational analysis. uRLLC applications will rely upon millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum bands (above 24 GHz) where very fast signals are possible. However, these bands will also require very high cell site density.

MMTC networks will provide 1,000 times more bandwidth than 4G in any given area, supporting the millions of dispersed sensors that will create the IoT. The applications for mMTC will be less dependent upon low latency, offer long battery life, and offer guaranteed communication at less frequent intervals. Low power wide area (LPWA) technologies, which have already begun deploying over existing 4G networks (e.g., LTE-Cat-M1 and narrowband-IoT, or NB-IoT), will contribute to the mMTC aspect of 5G networks.

5G machine-to-machine (M2M) markets are not expected to emerge until 2022 and beyond. Industrial verticals (including utilities) are not expected to be early adopters of 5G and the requirement for low cost devices (i.e., volume orders) will need to be met.

Utility planners take note

5G networks will have the potential to support virtually every utility connectivity need, and proponents suggest that pricing, security and quality of service will all be vastly more attractive than prior cellular generations. Applications will include teleprotection, video surveillance, sensor networks, substation connectivity, virtual training environments and much more.

Utilities today are deploying record amounts of fiber across their territories. As 5G networks come to market, that fiber may present a revenue opportunity, as 5G will require fiber not only for backhaul but also fronthaul.  Meanwhile, 5G networks may also present an attractive alternative to fiber given its very high performance profile and (purported) lower total cost of ownership. Another opportunity for utilities will come from its use of mmWave spectrum bands, which will require a very dense network of small cells.

Small cell densify existing cellular networks
Credit: Navigant Research

Utility poles, street lights and rights of way may all become valuable, revenue generating assets should the utility decide to lease space to carriers which need to densify their networks. As utilities plan their networks of tomorrow, planners should not overlook the 5G option before investing millions in fiber or other networks.