Austrian energy giant picks private LTE network

Energie AG is using a private communications system from Westermo to connect assets across the country including in mountainous and rural terrain, meaning the utility is no longer subject to the whims of public operators.

Energie AG Oberösterreich supplies more than 450,000 customers in Austria with electricity, gas, heat, and water, as well as waste disposal and ICT services.

Energie now relies on a private network comprised of 8,000 Westermo devices for its communications, spread across the country. Devices have been installed in substations in a wide range of settings adjacent to mountains and lakes, and in other terrains. Applications vary from SCADA to smart meter aggregation. Energie is also using the technology to control distributed energy resources such as solar and wind farms.

The network is a specialised private network with a high level of security. It includes technology such as protocol conversion which allows Energie to connect older equipment easily. “Our device will make the old equipment look like new,” explains Patrick Conway, director of business development at Westermo Ireland.

Westermo devices also benefit from a zero-touch deployment platform, which means that they work out of the box when installed. Energie IT systems can also be connected straight into the router. The devices are designed to survive for a long period of time without the need for upgrading.

The private 450 MHz network has a far lower number of base stations than a standard mobile phone LTE (4G) network and is much more effective over long distances. Westermo has spent a year fine-tuning the network with the radio module and base station vendors to cope with the demands of rural and mountainous areas, and constraints on connectivity and data rates. “We have a lot of experience in those very tough terrains,” says Conway.

Ideal for critical infrastructure

The Westermo devices are strongly suited to utilities and other critical infrastructure applications, Conway adds. The devices can convert and “sanitise” different SCADA protocols such as different versions of 101, 104 or DNP3. The Westermo routers convert these standards into one so everything ‘looks’ the same and is easier to maintain, run and test.

“That rationalises your estate so it easier to manage: you take a lot of the complexity out of the network. It saves a lot of hassle, so we do this with customers where the central protocols differ from those out in the field.”

Walter Pesendorfer, IKT management consultant at Energie, is responsible for the utility’s telematics and radio solutions. He began using 450 MHz technology in 2014 to connect substations to collect smart meter data. Public networks were deemed not to be stable enough, or able to cope with blackouts.

Pesendorfer also wanted a private network that could be used to control substations and enable internal voice communications. “Our base stations will work for a minimum of 48 hours in the event of a blackout. So the solution is completely in our hands,” he explains.

The system also collects data from decentralised power plants, particularly solar generation, which is growing fast in Austria.

Devices in the field are now being converted for a complete migration to LTE from older generation CDMA technology, Pesendorfer adds. The network comprises more than 60 base stations as well as the Westermo routers.

The full network was established in just three years. Installation consisted of core components and base stations plus masts. Energie was able to use some of its existing network of base stations for the project, which sped up the installation process.

The major Austrian utilities are now working together on establishing a privately owned and operated 450 MHz network for the whole country, similar to Germany’s. Says Pesendorfer: “We want to ensure utilities get the 450 MHz spectrum allocated by the regulator for use for critical infrastructure in the longer term. That means we are not subject to changes in public network technology in the future.”

There is potential for a similar plan in the UK, with utilities sharing one private LTE network, says Conway. Phasing out of public services may spur utilities to develop their own system. “The switch off of 3G will have an impact because companies are going to need to replace their estates. There are also the PSTN and ADSL switch-offs to consider. And there is security to think about.”

The UK is in the process of updating its cyber-security legislation. “If you can’t prove you have used industry standard cyber-security in the event of an incident, the fines are potentially massive, a percentage of your turnover per day,” Conway explains.

He says that as a result utilities are looking to adopt stringent cyber-security standards such as IEC 62351 and 62443. “If they implement these, number one, utilities are getting really good security. But the second thing is that if there is an event, they can say they are using the industry standard.

“This is potentially advantageous as the UK updates its Network and Information System regulations,” Conway points out.

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