Texas Outages Usher In The Data-Driven Utility And Private Networks

Ameren and San Diego Gas & Electric have signed 900 MHz spectrum leasing agreements with Anterix.

Don’t expect what happened in Texas to stay in Texas. There will be national repercussions.

A complete examination of every electric utility’s infrastructure will be demanded, not least by the utilities. It will be done formally and informally. And it may be demanded by regulators, federal and state.

The lesson of the deep freeze in Texas was that sound utility infrastructure is vital to the survival of the nation. Without electricity we would have no warmth, no water, no food, no fuel, no way of communicating by telephone or computer.

Can anyone not shudder at the knowledge that an 11-year-old boy, Cristian Pineda, died of suspected hypothermia in his bed after power went out in his mobile home in Conroe, Texas? There isn’t much point in spending nearly $1 trillion a year on national defense when aberrant weather or any other disaster can shut down a large swath of the country. Utilities’ engineering must be able to stand stresses not previously considered credible. Arctic cold, in Texas? Nah!

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Utilities have struggled to make themselves more resilient for years, now they must supercharge that effort.

The urgent need for resiliency comes at a time when they are changing in a profound way: They are going from central generation to multipoint generation, becoming data-driven.

Companies like Anterix ATEX (NASDAQ) , which offers spectrum to utilities for secure, private broadband networks, stand to come into their own.

Morgan O’Brien, Anterix executive chairman and a towering figure in communications, as co-founder of Nextel, the mobile phone pioneering company, explains the digitized utility this way, “Hear ‘wireless broadband’ and you may think of the commercial networks that run your mobile phones and laptops. But that same wireless broadband may soon be a foundational element of the modernizing electric grid.

“As distributed energy sources such as solar and wind play increasing roles in power generation, utilities are looking for innovative ways of collecting and monitoring data throughout the grid, often in real time. The digital highways that will support reliable resilient and secure connectivity are being designed using LTE, the global, wireless technology that has made 4G a transformational element of today’s economy.”

As utilities link up more and more intermittent power suppliers, like solar and wind, they will need to switch between them, often in milliseconds.

Smart meters were the first wave of digitization in the utilities. But the data they generate needs to be collated and understood, as does data from all those scattered generators that are part of the global revolution in utility design and operation.

Integrating data is one of the new frontiers in utilities. Pat Wood III, who is regarded by regulators as well as the regulated as having been an exemplary chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, said sadly after the Texas crisis, “We’ve spent billions on smart meters and on infrastructure, but it has let us down.” Ergo, if I can interpret, data management failed.

The future of our cities is imperiled if utilities can’t get on top of their data. Future cities, often called “smart cities,” will be driven by data. It will require extraordinary connectivity to keep these data-centric cities running smoothly. Automated vehicles, traffic lights, street lighting, water supply and sewage flow will need uninterruptible power supplies and data integration between the city and the utilities.

The city will become a moving, thinking, changing, seemingly live thing, planning and scheduling everything from traffic flows around sports events to deployment of police patrols.

At the center of this new city order is the utility, switching between generation point, storage, and the market. It must know what is happening, from when its lines have failed to the impact of a hot or cold day on electricity demand. Power data is knowledge in real time.

Anterix’s O’Brien believes that utilities need private broadband wireless networks to achieve this. These, he says, will secure the data flow in any emergency, especially if other systems are incapacitated by weather or cyberattack.

“A private network offers security of data supply in good times and in dire situations,” he says. “Utilities need absolute control of the elements of their system so they can prioritize what gets fixed when disaster strikes.”

He adds, “What we propose is better, safer, and tailored exactly to the needs of critical infrastructure.” Go bespoke, be in total control of your system is his message.

Part of O’Brien’s visionary thinking was to accumulate a large holding of the 900 MHz band of spectrum. This is what Anterix, headquartered in Woodland Park, N.J., is offering to utilities and other critical users who need to keep communications up even when everything else, perhaps including the grid, is going down.

Recently, two major utilities got the message and have signed lease agreements with Anterix: San Diego Gas & Electric Company, part of giant Sempra Energy SRE +1.9%, and Ameren AEE +2.4%, the utility serving parts of Illinois and Missouri. These agreements are worth $50 million and $48 million, respectively, over 25 years.

These Anterix deals are forerunners of the new infrastructure that utilities will need as they move further into the digital age and become, as some have said, “virtual utilities.”

I’m the creator, executive producer, and host of “White House Chronicle,” a weekly news and public affairs program, airing on PBS and SiriusXM Radio. My career in

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