The vision of 5G is that users will have the impression of continuous connectivity with unlimited bandwidth everywhere. This is the culmination of four decades of technological progress in mobile communications and one which will find its way into Africa’s utility business operating models.

5G refers to the Fifth Generation of mobile communication, which is being presented as a communications network designed to give users nearly every feature and all the functionality they could ever want (see Figure 1).

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2019.
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With the potential saturation of human needs for communication, the focus is now switching to machines and sensing. This potentially expands the market to cover every conceivable device on the planet, and every imaginable parameter.

In this environment, utilities are one of the prime targets for 5G applications as the energy, water and gas sectors have increasing requirements for monitoring and control driven by the bottom line, and regulatory and commercial pressures.

What is the focus point for utilities?

The big issues for utilities are cost, reliability, and confidence in the supply chain. It is important to note that the availability and resilience of a communications system is more a feature of network design, operation and maintenance than it is of the technology employed. There is nothing inherent in 5G to make it more reliable and resilient than previous generations of technology; on the contrary, there is the potential that the extra infrastructure – located closer to the end service points – needed to provide 5G promises will increase the cost of enhancing reliability. Since all modern communications networks are software controlled, this must also be recognised as a common-mode failure point, especially with the increasing complexity of modern software systems.

Where are most African utilities on the technology scale?

A majority of African countries are still recovering from years of technological neglect or stagnation. The legacy networks based on SONET (synchronous optical networking) are still the bread and butter of most utilities. Although the focus has changed over the last 10 years, only a dozen of utility telecommunication companies can point to a thriving communications network supporting the utilities.

Those utilities in the energy sector with fully functional inhouse telecom departments agree that their mandate evolves around supporting the critical energy reliability functions. These capabilities enable increased reliability of energy supply, decreased or eliminated outages, and improved efficiency – which together translate into more reliable energy, delivered at a lower cost. For example:

• Tele-protection is key to minimising the impact and duration of network faults. Certain schemes are configured in such a way that they could protect the sub-stations’ secondary equipment from line faults.

• Energy Management Systems optimise generation and high-voltage transmission of energy, both of which are capital-intensive operations.

• Distribution Management Systems keep neighbourhood distribution grids balanced as more and more residential solar energy and other distributed generation resources (and Independent Power Producers) are introduced into the grid.

• Smart Metering delivers a multitude of benefits, including reduced expense of recording consumption and the ability to charge consumers lower rates for off-peak energy consumption.

Are African utilities ready to venture into the world that 5G promises?

Infrastructure readiness is critical to the successful implementation of 5G. History has, however, taught us harsh lessons in this continent, where more often than not, the OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) have been known to dump old technology from other non-African countries to Africa under the guise of African agenda advancement. In the ICT market, this is called the “throw away technology” – i.e. old and obsolete equipment that has a poor form of after sales service and is no longer manufactured by the OEM concerned.

In certain instances, the contract gets awarded to these OEMs only for them to implement the project and leave the local staff without the technical know-how skills (skills-transfer) to operate the brand spanking new network. However, these pitfalls can be avoided if these OEMs could enter into BOOT (Build, Operate, Oversee and then Transfer) contracts in order for utilities to derive full value for money on these technology projects.

In short, the readiness of the African utilities will also be guided by the regulatory framework that each country determines through the regulatory bodies. In South Africa, the Minister of Communications, Siyabonga Cwele (2018), acknowledged the importance of 5G in many sectors but indicated that he would not release any 5G licences until the standards had been approved by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). Perhaps the new minister appointed in May 2019 will take a different stance.

How can utilities benefit from the advent of 5G?

5G is highlighted as a solution for critical applications such as those needed for utility operations where reliability is paramount. These centre on the ultra reliable low latency communication (URLLC) profile of 5G with latencies around 1-2 milliseconds (ms). Other discussed and potential use cases include:

• Autonomous vehicles with driverless cars interacting with one another and the road infrastructure.

• Real-time train control.

• Remote surgery with medical specialists operating on patients many miles away using robotic surgery.

• Remotely piloted aircraft.

• Factory and industrial automation.

While the 5G standard is intended to offer the functionality/characteristics to support mission critical systems such as those operated by utilities, we will demonstrate below that there are major questions about how 5G systems might be deployed in an appropriate manner to address the needs of the utilities.

An example is the prospect of using the ultrareliable low latency communication (URLLC) feature headlining 1-2ms latency for tele-protection, a system for monitoring electricity transmission lines that requires communications latencies down to 6ms for the most demanding applications.

Light travels about 300km (186 miles) in a millisecond – a thousandth of a second. Radio, being essentially a similar type of electromagnetic wave, travels at a similar speed through the atmosphere.

In contrast, light travelling in a fibre-optic telecommunications cable may only be travelling at two-thirds of the speed of a radio wave in the earth’s atmosphere, the equivalent of 200km (120 miles) per millisecond.

This may not be an issue in most low latency applications, but in tele-protection terms where end points are separated by a substantial distance, a dedicated utility fibre connection may be adequate; whereas a 5G network where the backhaul cable does not take a direct route, and signal processing and coding times have to be taken into account in the journey means 5G is unlikely to be able to meet an electricity utility’s end-to-end latency requirement over a wide area.

What are the challenges to consider?

Deploying fibre backhaul networks for small cells – to support high data rates and low latency – will be one of the largest challenges faced by operators/utilities due to the poor availability of fibre networks in many cities.

While most utilities work towards the backbone of their communication network being a mesh fibre, by using the DUCT (fibre cable buried underground), WRAP (helically applied fibre cable) or the more preferred OPGW (optical ground wire) method, interconnectivity to the last mile device would be critical.

Utilities should avoid fibre-based networks designed to enhance the 5G experience but have bottlenecks in their networks leading to last mile device. Even if the 5G network were optimised for this particular application by deployment of infrastructure closer to the end points, the costs of this additional equipment would be prohibitive if only required for this specialist application.

Last word of advice

The vast number of small radio sites envisaged will require electricity supply. The cost of installing and maintaining these power sources reliably may create a significant overhead cost. In a world of increasing energy costs and sensitivity to power consumption and emissions, these supplies may need to be metered independently of power supplied to the building or infrastructure to which the base station is attached. In a continent where even some of the top five energy utilities still have load shedding while some are reported to be having a black start of the electrical grid, power consumption will be a deal breaker for the 5G network. ESI


This article is based on the March 2019 “Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and Its Potential Impact on Electric Utilities” report, which was commissioned by the Utilities Technology Council on behalf of its global members, including Africa UTC – an association partner of ESI Africa.

The full report is available online at: the_Hype_Utilities_5G-2.pdf

About the author

Mlungisi Mkhwanazi is an executive director at AUTC (Africa Utilities Technology Council) with extensive experience in the ICT sector. Industry professionals and utilities are encouraged to visit the AUTC website for more information and to connect with Mlungisi on email. ||