Uninterrupted grid edge connectivity is essential for distribution utilities driving toward a future where efficient, secure, and reliable field area network (FAN) operation is not just preferable but required. Communications and network connectivity have been rapidly evolving over the last several years to keep pace with growing use cases and requirements. That trend will continue, giving utilities more options while still needing to remain prudent in their investments.
One of the options gaining traction in the United States is the private virtual network operator (PVNO) model. It provides a customizable approach to leveraging multiple commercial cellular carriers’ infrastructure while reducing overall capital needed to build a private network—and still provides greater visibility than the current-state public carrier connectivity model.
With the potential for increased control and adaptability, as well as robust security measures, PVNO positions itself as a solution for modern utilities looking to leverage existing infrastructure while maintaining autonomy over their network operations and data traffic.
There is no one-size-fits-all when looking to implement PVNO. It's not an out-of-the-box solution; it’s a collection of industry-accepted technologies that can be applied across a variety of customizable system options. The PVNO model can be an operational shift for many utilities who have historically been deploying private LTE networks for mission critical applications, but recent technology enhancements are allowing utilities to re-think future of field area networks.
PVNO is a wireless communications services operating model where a utility deploys their own grid edge technologies while leveraging existing cellular carrier radio access network (RAN) infrastructure—spectrum, towers, antennas, and base stations—like how consumers use their own cellular devices public carrier networks for voice and data. But in a PVNO model, the entity enters into a business agreement with a commercial carrier—or agreements with multiple carriers—to obtain bulk access to network services at wholesale rates. This is a model that has been followed by other commercial entities, particularly the automotive industry, over the last decade.
The network model is now receiving attention from U.S. utilities—following deployment by European counterparts—that are seeking a unified cellular connectivity strategy and network control without the expense of a fully private network infrastructure deployment. The PVNO model allows for extensive IoT-enabled network control, but the solution architecture and capabilities differ significantly from private LTE. Under a PVNO solution, utilities can leverage existing public cellular networks and infrastructure through a separately owned or managed PVNO core, creating a private network overlay that offers enhanced security and control for applications like IoT and remote monitoring.
Implementing a PVNO model allows a utility to customize a network model—from the grid edge devices to the SIMs to control center applications that enable the utility to monitor and control their field area network. The network architecture allows for redundancy and flexibility with ownership and management options across network components.
Despite a range of connectivity and reliability benefits, there are also potential drawbacks that must be considered when assessing if PVNO is the right fit for utility network operations. An effective assessment includes considering the outlined PVNO functional benefits and drawbacks against FAN requirements and a cost analysis.
The general benefits for this new model include but are not limited to:
There are lingering concerns over PVNO that have delayed implementation across the utility landscape, including:
A meticulous and rigorous approach to analysis is required to analyze strategies for mitigating these risks and determining if PVNO is the right solution. The decisions made for any design directly impact mission-critical devices that require reliable, resilient, and secure connectivity and control.
Step 1: Understand current & future-state networks, devices, and requirements
When examining if PVNO is the right fit for utility communications, it’s essential to understand the current and future state of networks and devices that will be connected. Potential utility networks that are good candidates for PVNO include Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), Mobile Data Systems (MDS), distributed energy resources management systems (DERMS), smart community and IoT, as well as various end-user devices such as phones, laptops, and tablets.
Step 2: Evaluate PVNO solution components and vendor options
PVNO is a concept that stands out for utilities as a potential solution because of the promise for increased control, adaptability, and robust security with a much smaller capital investment than building and maintaining private networks. It’s important to evaluate the options for each piece of the network architecture using the utility’s unique requirements. A PVNO model can be configured in various ownership and management structures based on utility requirements. This flexibility must be understood based on utility requirements and network considerations.
Step 3: Develop a PVNO cost model
Developing and completing a cost model for PVNO is a critical step. It’s paramount to understanding and documenting the financial implications of PVNO from a total cost of ownership (TCO) perspective—capital expenditures, operations and maintenance, technology refresh cycles, required support, and training. It’s important to understand the current communications systems costs, projected future costs (which can be gathered via a request for proposal process), and the major cost drivers. A TCO evaluation compares the cost of implementing and maintaining a PVNO system against the current state FAN and allows for quantitative evaluation.
Step 4: Build out a PVNO strategy and roadmap
Laying out a clear and comprehensive roadmap for PVNO ensures alignment with broader utility strategic, operational, and financial goals. Include the following activities:
Completing these steps means utilities can ensure that the PVNO integration will meet current needs and is adaptable for future needs. One key success factor is the continued education and socialization with leadership across various business units in the organization. Since PVNO is a newer concept for utilities within the U.S., it’s important to articulate the importance of PVNO evaluation, the wide range of options the model introduces, and how the options may benefit the utility’s field area network operationally and financially.
The landscape of PVNO is expected to expand and advance as options, utility technology, and vendor solutions continue to evolve. It's expected that various PVNO model formats soon will be widely adopted as utilities and other entities look to leverage continually expanding cellular infrastructure for communications. In parallel to wider adoption of PVNO, cell carriers are continuing to invest billions into cellular infrastructure as well as other technologies such as satellite. These large-scale investments will not only benefit cell phone users who rely on public carriers for personal communication but also entities with mission-critical applications looking to leverage PVNO solutions on their critical infrastructure and expand their smart grid IoT operations.
Using the PVNO model, utilities can remain nimble to adapt and evolve as cell carriers and technology vendors advance available tech solutions.
PVNO presents innovative and adaptative platform of solutions for utilities seeking to address communication challenges without the significant capital expenditure for a private network. Leveraging PVNO offers an unprecedented solution to meet communications requirements while remaining nimble to the evolving communications landscape. Careful consideration and a comprehensive approach are required when navigating the expansive landscape of PVNO—while continuing to monitor market trends.
Understanding the current and future utility system needs, evaluating available solutions and vendors, completing a benefits-cost analysis, and creating a PVNO strategic roadmap can help to make an informed strategic decision on if PVNO is the right fit for a utility’s field area network.
Further network architecture details can be found here.