Utility-telecom
Featured image: Stock

By Eng. Eric Wanjala, Chief Engineer Telecom Services at Kenya Power, Kenya

Utilities traditionally have expansive networks comprising assets valued in millions of dollars. This infrastructure is normally utilised for the principal business. However, this model faces a myriad of challenges the world over with African utilities no exception.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 5-2019.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

Here we explore how electric utilities can transform their assets from utility-infrastructure to utility-telecom to optimise through the reuse of networks to generate alternative sources of revenue.

Electric utilities are facing an increasing number of challenges evidenced by thinning revenues as a result of over-regulation, high competition, limited funding, changing demand, low customer satisfaction, disruptive technologies, high commercial and technical losses, ageing infrastructure, and increasing costs of infrastructure development. Opportunities in the transmission, distribution and last-mile grid segments are fully optimised for additional revenues. To this end, Kenya Power is benchmarking the utility-telecom model, which comprises the integration of broadband fibre optic infrastructure onto power lines from generation to consumers.

The model comprises aerial fibre optic deployments in existing and new power lines. The implementations are done in compliance with safety standards on clearance that are dependent on applicable line rates.

The optical ground wire (OPGW) and all-dielectric self-support (ADSS) fibre cable types are the predominant types in aerial deployments. The OPGW fibre cable is used for grounding besides consideration as the telecom broadband infrastructure. The utility-telecom model empowers utilities to deploy fibre optic cables for internal communication/data networks, billing, automation/smart grid and extra capacity for telecom business.

Utilities can, therefore, lease capacity (dark fibres, wavelength and bitstreams/bandwidth) to telecom service providers for alternative revenues. The utility-telecom model also allows optimisation of all spaces at utility substation premises and strategic locations for the development of data centre/colocation facilities.

The 12 benefits of the utility-telecom model

  1. Low cost of infrastructure ownership. Aerial deployment is a third of the cost of underground deployment per kilometre. This is an estimate according to industry average in Kenya.
  2. High security. The aerial deployment in power lines offers security due to proximity to high voltage lines. This is a deterrent to vandalism.
  3. High service availability (SLA %). Kenya Power has been able to deploy and maintain high SLAs to the appreciation of the industry. Typical achievements of 99.99% for services in OPGW segment have been realised.
  4. Low mean time to repair (MTTR). Aerial deployments are visible hence offering a quicker fault location and or inspection. This coupled with the fact that infrastructure accessibility is much reduced makes it realise low MTTR.
  5. No extra wayleaves / right of way charge(s). For brownfield (existing infrastructure) cases, no extra wayleave acquisition charges will be needed. This greatly reduces the cost of infrastructure ownership as right of way is usually a significant cost in terms of money and time.
  6. Increased demand for electricity. It has been demonstrated that access to affordable broadband services creates demand for electricity consumption. The broadband devices consume considerable energy that is bound to be a significant source of revenue for utilities beside current demand.
  7. Faster rollout time. Comparable to underground deployment, aerial deployment is faster. A typical aerial installation estimate of 4km per day of aerial deployment in the distribution network (66kV, 33kV and 11kV) is achievable as noted in the Kenyan case.
  8. Future proof (capacity). Fibre optic is known to have a long useful lifespan of more than 25 years. Bandwidth handling capacity of fibre optic cable is at unprecedented. Fibre optic technology is well-known to be the broadband infrastructure for the future that will realise high speed Internet with access speeds of up to and beyond one gigabit per second to the home/desk.
  9. Open Access model. Electric utilities, being neutral players in the telecom sector, occupy the much-envied position of a neutral carrier. This implies the utilities can deploy infrastructure with adequate capacity for all. Depending on the effective regulatory provisions within each jurisdiction, electric utilities will always find a better model or position to explore for strategic advantage. These may be joint ventures, partnerships and or self-propulsion.
  10. Smart grid and IoT Infrastructure. Regardless of the bandwidth requirements for present and future automation requirements, fibre optic has been proven appropriate as backbone, edge/metro and last-mile access technology. High reliability and availability requirements have pushed electric utilities to plan migration from current situations to Smart grids. The broadband network infrastructure is fundamental for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) network implementation. All fundamental areas for the IoT transformations – such as health, transport, security, food & nutrition, industry, trade/commerce, education, and agriculture – need reliable and affordable access to information.
  11. Green compliance. The utility-telecom model has the least impact on the environment. Whether the development is greenfield (new) or brownfield (existing), the aerial fibre optic deployment needs the least mechanisation/civil works, and is therefore green compliant.
  12. High flexibility in design and capacity. The model offers the most flexible architecture that facilitates growth, redundancy and re-routing with minimal interruptions or cost.

The case for Kenya Power

Kenya Power has successfully grown the utility-telecom model since 2010. The company is licensed and operates an open access model for lease of dark fibres to telecom service providers. The model has since grown to serve more than 10 leading telecom service providers by 2018.

Although customer numbers and network expansion is still growing, additional innovative services have since been added. These are fibre to the home (FTTH) based upon Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) architecture, colocation service(s), gateway / regional connectivity and more expected in the fibre to the x (FTTx) generations.

The company directly or indirectly contributes to the exceptional innovations and growth in the areas of mobile money transfer, advancement of mobile communications i.e. integration of 5G, 4G/LTE/WiMAX, connectivity to incubation/innovation hubs and regional gateway and upcoming smart city and IoT paradigms.

Having diversified to telecom services, the company endeavours to use innovations to conquer new frontiers and drive affordable Internet infrastructure/broadband services alongside reliable electricity supply to the desk, home, and business premises.

Africa’s economic growth, the realisation of the 17 United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the 7 African Union initiatives depend on affordable access to information. This is undoubtedly the driver of innovation to household levels. The utility model demonstrates substantial savings and offers the least TCO model to telecom service providers, governments and private organisations. These low costs must be passed down to consumers for affordability.

Access to affordable high-speed broadband/Internet infrastructure alongside access to reliable and affordable electricity/energy will fuel innovations and economic growth in households. Imminent infrastructure application in telemedicine, remote diagnostics, advanced nursing, 3D television broadcasting, e-governance, e-learning, smart cities, surveillance etc. are all bandwidth exhaustive and so need deep fibre optic models to guarantee long-term use without incessant costly upgrades as is now the case in most situations.

Consider these recommendations Development partners, among them the World Bank, the UN, African Development Bank, USAID, Google and the Internet Org., Power Africa, and UNDP, should prioritise this utility-telecom model for investments and projects in the energy sector across Africa. This will ensure better returns and increased prospects for innovations with access to affordable, reliable electricity and Internet.

All utilities (electric, railways, water, sewerage etc.) need to consider diversification to optimise assets for alternative revenue generation. This is desirable for cases where there are strategies for implementation of national broadband infrastructure. The long-term plans for growth and redundancy can be based on the resilient infrastructure.

As we extend deep fibre to the user’s premises/desk, this will ensure fibre optic infrastructure is used for densification of 5G, integration of fixed digital subscriber line (DSL) and fixed wireless (WiMAX, Wi-Fi fibre etc.) and mobile 4G/Long Term Evolution-LTE technologies to extend broadband access to far-flung areas, and remote/ rural areas of the vast African continent.

Electric utilities and the Africa Utility Telecom Council (AUTC), Fibre to The Home – FTTH Africa, governments and agencies, and development partners are called to converge and agree on the roadmap, strategy and full execution of this model to ensure faster realisation of the 17 UN-SDGs, 7-AUs initiatives and other strategic broadband and development plans by various governments.

Review of existing policies and standards needs to consider telecom infrastructure/Internet as a mandatory utility alongside electricity, water, and sewerage that have historically been the focus. This should be included in checklists for building approvals at design stage aimed at ensuring all buildings across Africa have access to broadband services as the fourth utility.

Now is the time for African utilities to address capacity development through consultancy with each other and to explore upcoming successful cases on the continent like Kenya Power. ESI

Reference
World Bank blogs by R. Andres Castaneda Aguilar, Dean Mitchell Jolliffe, Tony Fujs, Christoph Lakner, Espen Beer Prydz|. October 03, 2019.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 5-2019.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.