It’s pretty common at a celebration like a parade, a party, a championship game, or a wedding, for the air to be filled with confetti. 

And so it was with an intentional sense of irony (and exaggeration) that a utility executive, speaking at a recent industry conference, proclaimed that TDM and analog circuit end-of-life notices were “raining down like confetti” from service providers. It was apparent that the discontinuation of these services that utilities have relied on for years to support critical grid operational control and monitoring was happening more suddenly than expected, and clearly nobody was celebrating.

The notifications announce the carriers’ plans to discontinue legacy leased circuits – analog, frame relay, and other TDM access and private-line services – and replace them with optical IP and Ethernet-based packet services. For the carriers, this transition is inevitable and unstoppable. Their circuit-switched telephone services have been in decline for years, steadily displaced by broadband and mobile data services, and they can no longer afford to offer and support these increasingly costly legacy services. Most carriers plan to have their transitions completed within the next 5 years, and in some cases the time to withdraw from a discontinued service will be as short as 120 days from receipt of notification.

However, for the utility industry – an understandably risk-averse community – this transition introduces two big challenges; can utilities respond quickly enough to the transition to avoid potential serious service disruptions, and can the newer packet technologies provide the same level of reliable, deterministic performance that critical grid operations require?


The Clock is Ticking

The clock is ticking and most utilities have already started planning and implementing their communications technology migration strategies. And in doing so, to achieve greater control while lowering the total cost, many utilities are planning to extend their core private optical networks further out to the edge, into the transmission and distribution substations.

Fortunately, on the question of network performance, our experience working with large and small utility customers has demonstrated that Carrier Ethernet technology is perfectly suited to supporting utility operations, with services that can be engineered to be reliable, low-latency and deterministic.

Combined with modern packet-based traffic engineering technologies such as MPLS-TP, specific routes (and backups) can be engineered for a specific level of required network performance for applications such as teleprotection. These can be dynamically or statically defined, both delivering the required level of specific network performance. Also referred to as ‘connection-oriented’, these tunnels can be planned ahead of time, monitored on an ongoing basis, adjusted to reflect dynamic bandwidth demand, all while providing deep insight into the service via a broad set of embedded OAM management tools that require no external test sets.

Fierce Innovation Awards 2015 award winnerAlthough these embedded OAM management tools tend to be carrier-driven features, utilities will also appreciate the level of visibility and control they provide in a private network environment. Tools like loopback, continuity, and throughout performance testing help establish a connection is up and running before it is relied on in a working environment. Other tools, such as periodic latency, jitter, and packet loss measurements help ensure the necessary end-to-end network performance is being met for critical applications.

These are exactly the capabilities that helped Ciena’s 8700 Packetwave Platform recently win the SmartGridNews 2015 Fierce Innovation Award for Smart Grid Managed Services, as judged by a panel of distinguished executives in major North American utilities who deemed it a “necessary product” for modern utility communications networks.

So while the imperative to migrate off legacy TDM-based carrier services creates a challenging timetable for those that operate the nation’s critical electrical infrastructure, it should be reassuring to know that there are field-proven networks solutions available today, operating in real-world utility networks, that can help enable a successful transition.  In fact the service discontinuation situation may not be as dire as first assumed and it just might make sense to keep some of that confetti handy.

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Ciena Chalk Talk: Utility Network Modernization With Packet Optical Technology