Ameren Sails Into Digital Future With Private Broadband Utility Network

Posted On December 29, 2020

Source: Forbes

Ameren, an electric and gas utility serving parts of Illinois and Missouri, has taken a giant step forward in recognizing the digital future. It has signed a 30-year agreement to lease spectrum from Anterix for a private broadband LTE network to provide critical communications services.

Anterix, a telecommunications service provider based in Woodland Park, New Jersey, is the largest holder of 900 MHz spectrum licenses, which it has been acquiring over a number of years. Shares of Anterix (NASDAQ: ATEX) surged as much as 70 percent after the deal announcement, then fell back but are trading in a higher range.

The lease deal, which came just before Christmas, represents a major step into the data-driven future of Ameren (NYSE: AEE) and caps a year of progress for Anterix. In May, the Federal Communications Commission cleared the way for Anterix to utilize its holdings of 900 MHz spectrum for private networks.

For both the utility industry and Anterix the deal is a recognition of the importance of beefing up communications to handle the complexity of the modern utility with its diverse generation and critical need for decisions in fractions of a second.

Why The Deal Is Important
Private broadband networks of the type that Ameren has set out to deploy on the 900 MHz spectrum are totally independent of established communications systems, such as those leased from the telephone companies, and will continue to function even if the telephone company’s service is interrupted or the electric grid is compromised, as in a cyberattack.

The joint announcement of the deal was heightened in its significance by far-reaching, recent attacks on thought-to-be-secure, U.S. critical targets.

Bhavani Amirthalingam, senior vice president and chief digital information officer for Ameren, said, “We see 900 MHz private LTE as a vital component of our digitization strategy to support a wide range of benefits to Ameren and its customers, allowing for the eventual consolidation of over 20 of our legacy networks onto one platform.”

Amirthalingam, regarded in the industry as a leader in a new generation of digital-savvy executives, said, “Anterix has been a valuable partner in our pursuit of the critical communications layer of our digital grid. Over the next several decades, this private LTE network will advance the reliability and security of the electric grid through a range of broadband-enabled applications and services, including the integration of distributed energy resources to help us meet our net-zero carbon goal by 2050.”

Amirthalingam was recruited by Ameren in 2018. Previously, she was an executive with Schneider Electric, the global electrical systems firm.

Robert Schwartz, Anterix CEO and president, hailed Ameren’s pioneering work. He said, “Recognizing the scarcity of the spectrum asset, Ameren was an early advocate of spectrum changes by the FCC that would enable broadband services in the 900 MHz spectrum band and is a founding member along with Anterix in the Utility Broadband Alliance.”

Many utility networks are now working with Anterix on their future broadband needs, the company said.

Role In Decarbonization
In a call with analysts, Schwartz said, “An advanced grid that facilitates decarbonization and embraces renewable and distributed energy sources, that addresses the increasing usage of electric vehicles will need advanced communications. The current and future use cases and value they create is why we are confident that other utilities will also be making long term commitments to join the 900 MHz private LTE system.”

Ameren was formed by the merger of Missouri’s Union Electric Company and the Central Illinois Public Service Company in 1997. It is headquartered in St. Louis and serves 900,000 gas customers and 2.4 million electric customers. It is a holding company for four operating companies: Ameren Missouri, Ameren Illinois, Ameren Transmission, and Ameren Services.

The deal was a triumph for Anterix Executive Chairman Morgan O’Brien, a co-founder of Nextel and a vital voice for advanced communications as a source of innovation and security for utilities – a strengthening of the electric infrastructure.

In explaining the serviceability of broadband networks, O’Brien said a utility could detect a line break in under 1.4 seconds and inform its operation center of the break before the line hit the ground — important in wildfire response and avoidance. Likewise, fast-switching will be essential in connecting distributed generators where individual units might be coming online and going offline in seconds.

O’Brien said the private LTE networks could support rural broadband if the individual utilities chose to make their infrastructure available for that purpose. “Local providers will still have to provide the ‘last mile’ of the hook-up,” he said.

Always a visionary, O’Brien looks to a day when utility broadband networks will be linked together in a “network of networks.”

Written by Timothy Downs

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