Site loading image


The Digital Transformation of the Utility Operations Model: Essential Telecom Network Upgrades to Make Now

Bill Hawk | October 4, 2023

In today’s interconnected world, the utility’s telecommunications network plays a crucial but often overlooked role in the efficient operation of the power grid. As technology advances and cybersecurity threats loom, companies must prioritize communications retrofits and upgrades to ensure reliability, availability and business continuity.

Acting now to keep pace with the rapid changes required of a modern power grid has a range of benefits from enhanced cybersecurity, increased bandwidth and improved speed, to improved outage management and enhanced predictive maintenance.

Evolving Technology and Protocols

One significant reason to consider retrofitting your communications network now is the trending shift from traditional time division multiplexing (TDM) circuits to digital packet networks. Previously, networks relied on dedicated time slots for devices to communicate, but newer technologies, such as MPLS, TCP/IP and Ethernet, offer more efficient and cost-effective alternatives. They eliminate the need to commit bandwidth for circuits with low utilization, and to invest in outdated network equipment or dedicated leased lines. Once deployed, packet networks are more scalable without additional significant infrastructure investments and provide a higher available bandwidth for faster data transmission when needed. Packet networks are also much easier to configure and manage and provide greater scalability for future expansion. These networks do not require dedicated time slots, which allows the bandwidth to be allocated more efficiently across multiple devices and services at a site.

Historically, communication networks were designed in loops or rings to ensure redundancy and reliability. However, with the advancement of protocol standards which provide high levels of reliability, most applications have migrated to packet networks. While packet networks are suitable for various purposes, electric relaying requires dedicated fiber strands or specific sections of the network due to their stringent timing requirements. One popular solution to these differing requirements is to utilize either separate fiber strands or radio networks that can support packet traffic plus a small amount of TDM traffic to support the protective relaying services.

Bandwidth Requirements and Speed

Upgrading your communications network can also help meet increased bandwidth demands resulting from enhanced cybersecurity measures. Encryption of data expands the data packet size, which requires much more bandwidth to accommodate the same signal being transmitted. Upgrading from a slower connection, such as 64kbps (thousand bits/second) or 1.5Mbps (megabits/second, which is a T1 or DS-1 circuit), to faster 10 Mbps (Ethernet) or higher connections can help with the demand for the higher speeds, can enhance the network performance overall, and can enable more seamless data transfer. This enables the use of more secure encryption (128 or 256 bit) and provides the bandwidth requirements needed for robust network performance and cybersecurity measures.

Integration and Grid Modernization

As utilities modernize their operations, integrating corporate data networks with telecommunications systems becomes crucial to achieving efficient and effective management of grid operations. This integration requires coordination and collaboration between IT and operations departments. Furthermore, the integration of interconnected generation and distributed energy resources (DERs) into the grid necessitates the extension of the utility communication networks to these facilities. By enabling effective communication between utility systems and DERs, utilities can manage and optimize the outputs of these resources, ensuring grid stability and maximizing their benefits. Upgrades allow utilities to monitor DERs in real-time, manage energy flows, and maintain grid balance while accommodating increasing renewable energy expansion.

Additionally, modernizing telecommunications networks is a critical step towards realizing the full potential of smart grid initiatives. Smart grids leverage advanced technologies and two-way communications to enable efficient energy management, accurate demand response, and real-time data exchange. Upgraded networks provide the necessary bandwidth, low latency and high reliability required for smart grid applications. They enable the integration of smart meters, distribution automation devices and systems, and advanced analytics, all of which empower utilities to make data-driven decisions and optimize grid operations.

Improved Outage Management and Restoration

During power outages, effective communication is paramount for efficient outage management and restoration. Upgraded telecommunications networks facilitate rapid and accurate communication between field crews, substations, and control centers. Utilities leverage technologies like Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), outage management systems and mobile applications to streamline workflows, locate faults, dispatch crews promptly and provide real-time updates to customers. These capabilities minimize outage duration, enhance customer satisfaction and reduce operational costs.

Facilitation of Advanced Analytics and Predictive Maintenance

Upgraded telecommunications networks enable the transmission of vast amounts of data from remote sensors, field devices and downline monitoring equipment across the grid. The data thus obtained are harnessed for advanced analytics and predictive maintenance. By leveraging big data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence utilities can gain valuable insights into asset health, identify potential failures in advance, and schedule maintenance proactively. This approach enhances grid reliability, extends asset operational lifetimes, reduces downtime and optimizes maintenance costs.

Risks of Inaction

While there are many benefits to upgrading now, there are  risks to inaction across key areas of a utility’s business operations. Maintaining the status quo may lead to the following adverse impacts, among others:

  • Cybersecurity: Retrofitting the telecom network ensures the implementation of robust security measures, protecting the network and grid from bad actors and potential threats. The longer a utility delays upgrades, the more vulnerable the grid and internal operational processes can become.
  • Availability and Reliability: Upgraded telecommunications networks offer higher availability and improved reliability, reducing downtime and enhancing overall system performance. Outdated systems that are kept in service without a plan for modernization can significantly impact the quality of service provided to utility customers over time.
  • Regulatory Compliance: While regulations related to telecommunications networks are limited, utilities must ensure all critical communications are encrypted. Upgrading networks to meet encryption requirements limits the risk of non-compliance and supports ongoing system protection.
  • Timeliness: Upgrading is crucial as legacy equipment reaches its end of life or new applications cannot be run on the old network equipment. Neglecting upgrades may lead to compatibility issues and hinder the adoption of new technologies with seriously detrimental effects over time.
  • Cost: Although retrofitting requires a significant capital investment, delaying upgrades can result in unnecessary costs due to the proliferation of multiple networks and capacity and bandwidth limitations.

Factors to Consider During the Upgrade Process

Several factors need consideration when upgrading your utility’s communications networks. Understanding bandwidth requirements, the number of locations that need to be served and the impacts on the overall architecture of the network are essential. Assessing the needs of each department can mitigate potential risks. It also helps understand what technology is already available. Consider backwards compatibility to ensure that any remaining equipment will function on the new network.

Additionally, training costs for technicians and the need to adapt to advanced technologies must be factored into the upgrade process. Training technicians on the new equipment and protocols is crucial to ensure smooth operations and effective troubleshooting.

To learn more about the factors critical to a successful upgrade process, download TRC’s  Essential Guide for Telecommunications Design Optimization.

Plan Now for Success: TRC Can Help

Retrofitting or upgrading your communications networks is a crucial step in keeping pace with the rapidly changing technology landscape. There is no single reason to upgrade, however enhanced cybersecurity, improved reliability and increased bandwidth capacity show that the benefits of upgrading the networks are now undeniable. Upgrading supports improvements in outage management and saves time and money as advanced analytics can be consistently monitored across the grid. With the potential regulatory, system, operational and customer service risks that could result from inaction and delay, it is crucial for power utilities to prioritize retrofitting and upgrading their communications networks to meet the demands of a modern power grid and to enable a resilient and secure energy infrastructure.

TRC’s telecommunications engineering team supports the planning, design, implementation management and field services for all stages of network development, from concept through commissioning. As your trusted advisors, TRC can help increase the impact of your network technology programs with customized engineering solutions that embrace innovative approaches, maximize benefits, and control costs.

To learn more, visit our related service pages or contact us to discuss your specific project needs.

Bill Hawk

Bill Hawk is TRC’s Director of Private Networks Engineering. He is a Professional Engineer with over 35 years of experience in the planning, design and implementation of all aspects of utility networks and communications systems, security systems and Smart Grid/Distribution Automation systems. His areas of expertise include technology, project planning, requirements definition, project team management and project coordination. Bill has successfully completed numerous large telecommunications and security projects with local, municipal and state utilities, governments, school districts, commercial and industrial businesses, universities and university systems. Contact Bill at

Looking for effective solutions to your problems?

Turn to the experts at TRC.

By clicking "Accept", you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. Read our Privacy Policy.