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When a private LTE test network at Utility Broadband Association (UBBA) Plugfest 2021 was temporarily disabled, attendees could be forgiven for going to get a snack. The test would measure our router’s failover time from Anterix’s 900 MHz private LTE to AT&T’s FirstNet. For most routers that’s about five minutes. But just five seconds later the Cisco Catalyst IR1101 Rugged Series Router had reconnected to FirstNet. The snackers missed it. Picture it: line-status fault location, isolation, and service restoration (FLISR) in five seconds versus five minutes. It’s a huge advance for resilient grid operations.

This test took place at UBBA’s first ever plugfest, held in St. Louis from October 18-21, 2021. Founded in 2019, UBBA’s mission is to help members plan, design, and deploy secure, reliable, and resilient private broadband networks to support critical infrastructure. Members include major utilities, technology providers, and systems integrators—all working together to share the latest approaches to grid communications, security, and resiliency. Cisco is a founding member of the UBBA, and we’re huge fans of its collaborative approach to building a modern grid to keep people safe and society productive.

What is a plugfest?

A plugfest is an event where solution providers come together in one place to test interoperability. This year’s UBBA Plugfest 2021 focused on distribution automation, but test results also apply to other LTE use cases such as transmission and distribution substations, advanced meter collectors, and connected fleet vehicles. The event sold out, a sign that utilities are accelerating their grid modernization programs. Around 300 people attended in person to hear speakers on topics such as rural broadband and grid security, visit vendor booths, and watch demonstrations like the FirstNet failover test I described. Hundreds more attended virtually via Webex. We at Cisco were pleased to donate the shared switching and routing infrastructure for Plugfest as well as Cisco Webex services to broadcast the event to the many participants joining virtually.

Private LTE—its star grows

More and more of our utility customers are considering private LTE for grid modernization projects like distribution automation. LTE is proven. And Private LTE offers the speed, flexibility, and security needed for a huge volume and variety of endpoints and applications. Narrowband technologies like NB-IoT and Cat-M are fine for non-critical applications—for instance, sensors detecting whether poles are leaning or have been hit by a tree or vehicle. Broadband is better suited for critical utility use cases. One reason is that broadband supports over-the-air router updates to maintain optimal security posture. It’s now possible for medium-to-large utilities to deploy successful private LTE networks. It’s a proven technology and utilities are finding economic, operational, and security advantages to them.

Fast failover, the missing ingredient until now

The utilities I’ve met with say that improving grid resilience is a key reason they’re leaning toward private LTE. We designed our industrial routers with resilience in mind. You can configure the IR1101 with single or dual pluggable communications modules (including multicarrier modems), dual SIMs, and support for a variety of UE LTE categories. In tests at Plugfest, a single IR1101 attached successfully to multiple vendors’ evolved packet core (EPC) products using CBRS (3500 MHz band), Anterix (900 MHz), US Cellular (850 MHz), and FirstNet (750 MHz). The IR1101 failed over from Anterix to FirstNet with just a 5-second interruption in SCADA polling, using standard IP-SLA configurations.

One router platform, many use cases

Besides being resilient, our industrial routers come in different form factors to support various utility use cases. Mount them in racks, on poles, or in vehicles. Use the same pluggable modems that were tested during UBBA Plugfest. All models are built to withstand harsh environmental conditions like extreme temperatures, dust, frequency interference, surge, and humidity. Of course, they also have utility certifications such as IEC-61850-3 and IEEE 1613, and comply with NERC-CIP.

Using one router platform for all your modern grid use cases means your workforce needs just one skill set. The large pool of Cisco-trained engineers makes those skills easier to come by. Network automation expedites deployment while reducing configuration errors. In combination, a skilled workforce and automation help mitigate the primary cause of all network outages: human error. A standardized router platform and architecture also make it easier to enforce compliance with your security policy, for stronger cybersecurity protection.

UBBA Plugfest 2021 gave us lucky attendees an inspiring glimpse into the future of the grid—and the power of collaboration. Check back for future blogs, when my team will discuss the latest in grid modernization and utility digitization.

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