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Field area network replacements: The growing need for utility communications

Field area network replacements: The growing need for utility communications

With the ever growing need for utilities to communicate with devices in the field, legacy networks are being replaced and upgraded to handle the challenge. Utilities need to extend their field area networks (FAN) further and further to enable Distribution Automation (DA), Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), Substation Automation and Distributed Generation. These networks offer a secure and flexible method to provide manageable communications. Readiness for this transition from the older field area networks is complex and having the right plan in place before deployment can make all the difference.

Utilities typically implement a multi-tiered communications network architecture where:

  • Tier 1: the core IP network with fiber and/or point-to-point (PTP) wireless technologies
  • Tier 2: the field area network with broadband mesh, point-to-multipoint (PMP) and/or cellular technologies
  • Tier 3: the neighborhood area network (NAN) of AMI equipment (meters, collectors, etc.)

This article will investigate four specifics to Tier 2 – the field area network and migration from legacy to new systems.

Project Kickoff

The kickoff meeting…the best opportunity to energize the team and establish a common purpose toward milestones and deliverables. How does one effectively approach this with a balance of inclusiveness and command? Having an agenda is a good start, but more importantly is the execution of that agenda at meeting time. Define the purpose, the expected goals and deliverables of the project and walk the team through the high-level plan. This isn’t the time to go into every detail, but to step through the plan and point out potential bottlenecks.

Having a well thought out and agreed upon RACI matrix (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) describes the participation by various roles in completing tasks or deliverables for the project. In utilities, field area network replacements typically cut across many organizations, for example, telecom, SCADA, operations, field deployment, and DA engineering. Having a clear understanding of everyone’s roles will allow situations to be resolved in an efficient manner.

Field Area Network Head End Deployment

The likely location of the head ends for the replacement FAN will be where the legacy head end locations are today; however, take this opportunity to evaluate the wireless technology and understand the networks’ current and future density, wireless propagation characteristics, etc. to evaluate the best head end locations moving forward. Some considerations:

  1. Will the head ends be installed in a phased or all at once approach?
  2. How can the field area network project team work closely with the utility’s distribution grid capacity planning team to understand where the network needs will be in the future?
  3. For new DA equipment installations, what the does the transition of deploying to the legacy network vs. the new network look like?
  4. Can the utilization of a geographic information system (GIS) assist in network design and field deployment planning?
  5. What utility construction standards may need to be updated or created new?
  6. How do physical and cyber security requirements of the FAN impact location?

Build-out of the Repeater Network

Whether utilizing a mesh or point-to-multipoint architecture the field area network may use a number of wireless repeaters. From a deployment perspective there are a number of considerations:

  1. Antenna height (consistent through network or dependent on particular locations)?
  2. Antenna type (omni-directional or directional)?
  3. Should the network repeaters be battery backed-up?
  4. Where on the electrical distribution network should the repeaters be installed (main-stem vs. taps)?

Inventory Management

While sometimes an afterthought, inventory management can make or break a significant field area network replacement project. Month after month thousands of pieces of radio equipment and accessories will be coming in from the equipment vendor and going out to the field for installation. Understanding when and where that equipment is placed in the field will keep the project moving along, but also assist the network operation team when the inevitable troubleshooting starts. Some considerations:

  1. Should the project maintain a project specific database of inventory that feeds into the utility’s enterprise asset management system?
  2. Depending on the size of the service territory, will the inventory be centralized or de-centralized?
  3. Does the equipment require pre-programming before deployment?
  4. What will be the naming schema for the radio equipment? How will operations know on what distribution poles that equipment is deployed?

Transition to Operations

As the project progresses, the deployed parts of the network will be transitioned to a run state and the operations team will take over for day-to-day issues. Best practice should be for the deployment team to incorporate operational processes in their efforts. In doing this, operational process will have been tested “over and over” so that the baton passing from deployment to operation is seamless. Additionally, whether the field area network is being deployed all at once or broken up into “areas,” having a common checklist of close-out information per area will ensure that all requirements are met and there are no exceptions that operations should be aware of. Some considerations:

  1. Was the design deployed as documented or were there field changes (red-lines)?
  2. Is all equipment being monitored with the organizations element and network management systems?
  3. Are all organization’s informational database current with the new field area equipment?
  4. Are support contracts in place?
  5. Have acceptance test plans been documented, approved and executed?

At West Monroe, we have the business and technology acumen to assist your utility in getting started with this. We helped a large, multiservice investor-owned utility navigate the evaluation process—and ultimately take a key step toward replacing its current FAN communication infrastructure with next-generation functionality and capabilities.

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