SCADA, teleprotection, land mobile radios, video surveillance, and distribution automation have become core components of the utility grid. Utilities have relied on telecommunications carriers for decades to provide connectivity across the service territory to enable these services at reasonable costs and acceptable reliability. They would would struggle to operate efficiently without these services.
But the environment is changing. Carriers are evolving their networks as consumers change from traditional landlines to cell phones and as demands shift from voice to data for video calls, streaming, and cloud applications.
As these networks evolve, carriers plan to retire support of their legacy services—including plain old telephone service (POTS) lines and analog circuits—that utilities use for most critical services. While this has been known for the last few years, carriers are now executing their roadmaps to retire legacy services across the country. Industries petitioned for the carriers to extend support for these services, but those extension windows are expiring.
Utilities then face increasing telecom costs, limited visibility, and thousands of devices reliant on end-of-life technologies. Loss of connectivity to SCADA and teleprotection devices also potentially destabilizes the gird, resulting in additional outages and unsafe operating conditions that put employees and customers in life-threatening situations.
While it may seem like a straightforward upgrade to replace these telecom circuits, there are four reasons to establish a coordinated carrier optimization program now.
The telecommunication carriers have few incentives to help utilities perform these upgrades—plus they have their own coordination challenges when performing these programs. They are retiring many legacy copper wire centers that host POTS lines and DS0 circuits for utility infrastructure. The carriers typically can only provide a few months’ notice before disconnecting circuits, and they cannot provide a roadmap of which wire centers will be retired in the months or even years to come. Even when they provide notices, the disconnect notices can get sent to the service or billing address and end up in the wrong stakeholders’ hands, if they’re even seen at all.
These challenges reduce the already short time frame that utilities can react to the notices. Having a close working relationship with the carriers and a centralized contact helps reduce the risks of the carriers disconnecting services without the proper notice and allows time to plan for alternative non-leased-line solutions or a carrier upgrade.
Although carriers are required to offer alternative options, they typically don’t offer utilities enough time to perform the upgrades. They also create compatibility issues to connect with digital alternatives. Since replacement solutions are not an actual “like-for-like” swap, sites require preparation to install new infrastructure, maintain grounding specifications, power new devices, and connect to legacy interfaces. As carriers migrate from copper to fiber, their equipment requires new local power from the site to operate.
Utilities need to consider the interfaces available on the telecom equipment. New solutions might require IP or ethernet connections instead of serial interfaces, which requires utilities to replace the end device in addition to the telecom equipment. As this happens, utilities find themselves unprepared to reactively upgrade their connections when carriers announce their migrations on a monthly rolling basis and the scope begins to expand.
Additionally, carrier alternatives cost three to four times more than legacy connections, creating millions of dollars in O&M risk. While the carrier may offer an upgrade to the current service, it’s not always a simple process. It can involve additional equipment from both the carrier and the utility as well as resource costs to escort the carrier technicians.
Another risk for utilities is the lack of comprehensive and accurate records. Typically, records for leased-line services installed decades ago are non-existent or relegated to tribal knowledge by the local field technicians. Understanding the leased inventory and use cases for each leased service can take time and effort from multiple internal and external resources. When utilities receive disconnect notices at locations, they will need to reference these records to determine what the service gets used for and whether it requires an upgrade.
These efforts typically require visits to each of the sites to analyze the demarcation point to identify which telecom tags can be seen at the location—if the circuits have been tagged at all. Occasionally, the utility will need to work closely with the carrier to locate and tag the connections as these leased lines can be difficult to locate. Being proactive and having a program in place to identify all the use cases in the utility’s leased inventory may make the process of determining a solution easier when a disconnect notice is received.
Although this presents a series of challenges for utilities, it also presents an opportunity to improve utility budgeting and financial forecasting. Establishing a coordinated program and allocating capital funding to perform upgrades prevents the upgrades from being charged as expense costs. Additionally, eliminating unnecessary carrier circuits and migrating to utility-owned infrastructure can significantly reduce O&M bills paid to telecom carriers each month. These programs frequently identify a significant amount of abandoned telecom connections that can be removed from the carriers' bills.
Key items to consider when submitting telecom connections for disconnect:
Being proactive by developing solutions for migrations from legacy leased services to a private solution will enable more accurate budgeting and forecasting of capital spend and potential future project builds.
At the surface, circuit retirements might seem straightforward, but they come with some significant challenges. While utilities can overcome these challenges, they compound for larger organizations. Establishing a centralized and coordinated program allows utilities to take a proactive approach instead of reacting as carriers provide disconnect notices, which quickly becomes unsustainable across a large service territory.
There are several items to consider when establishing a program, but meeting with your telecom carriers regularly to review their plans can minimize the impact of circuit retirements on the business. Now is the time to seize the opportunity to keep up with the carriers as they begin announcing service retirements across the country.