IoT Blog
IoT Blog

How FirstNet for Utilities Can Improve Communications, Operations, and More

by Warren Westrup, Director, Business Development, Utilities
In the event of an emergency or natural disaster, such as a flood, hurricane, or earthquake, utilities have an important role to play in keeping communities safe. Without electricity or water, public safety and emergency response efforts are severely hampered. Utility workers are often the first ones on the scene of a disaster, sometimes arriving before emergency workers to restore services.

Fast and reliable voice and data communications during such events is critical—which is why FirstNet™ can be a valuable service for utilities.

Authorized by the United States Congress in 2012, FirstNet was created to provide a dedicated, reliable wireless network for first responders, including police, fire, and emergency medical personnel. FirstNet works by separating first responder communications from consumer and commercial cellular traffic. This provides improved quality of service and priority, as well as pre-emption for first responders during a crisis. Think of it as a communications “fast lane” for public safety.

Though it was mostly designed for “primary user” first responders like police departments and fire departments, FirstNet’s wireless broadband network is also available to “extended primary users” like electric, gas and water utilities, whose services are critical for keeping communities safe during an emergency event.

Traditionally, utility companies have relied on privately owned and operated telecommunications networks for their communication needs. Many, for example, make heavy use of land mobile radio (LMR) technologies as well as private microwave or fiber-optic networks.

FirstNet represents an opportunity for utilities to gain access to a reliable, secure, and resilient wireless broadband communications technology that complements or even improves upon their existing technologies. For example, with FirstNet, utilities can improve interagency communications with fire and police departments, gain better wireless connectivity and coverage in rural areas, and even support the rollout of new advanced remote mobile workforce management and other Internet of Things (IoT) applications that require fast and reliable wireless data connectivity.

In doing so, FirstNet can help utilities increase their field work force’s efficiency and safety, as well as help them improve their response and recovery times during emergencies.

FirstNet for Utilities: The Sierra Wireless Advantage

For utilities seeking to make FirstNet part of their IoT or other communications strategies, Sierra Wireless’ utility experience; router, gateway, and other edge devices; network management solutions; and end-to-end security offerings make it the ideal partner.

Deep Utility Sector Experience: Sierra Wireless’ advantage starts with experience. Sierra Wireless is an IoT pioneer with a rich 25-year history of innovation in the wireless space. More importantly, Sierra Wireless is a long-time trusted partner for both public safety and utility organizations with 4 out of 5 of the top 20 utilities using Sierra Wireless solutions to connect critical infrastructure and vehicle fleets. Sierra Wireless understands how utility companies work and the unique challenges they face – and this deep knowledge goes into the solutions that are developed.

Rugged Routers and Gateways:
When it comes to FirstNet for utilities, Sierra Wireless offer a range of intelligent routers, gateways, and other edge devices that allow utilities to keep their mission critical workers and assets connected. Sierra Wireless’ AirLink® routers and gateways provide persistent broadband communications, location tracking, and remote monitoring for mobile responder fleets. They include support for not just FirstNet, but also public carrier LTE and Wi-Fi LAN, allowing them to automatically switch between FirstNet, public carrier, and Wi-Fi networks. 

Critically, AirLink routers and gateways deliver this secure, highly reliable connectivity in a rugged form-factor that has been designed to military specifications and proven in the field by first responders. This means a utility crew in a bucket truck, working in adverse conditions to restore downed power lines, can reliably keep in touch with HQ – and HQ can reliably keep in touch with them.

FirstNet Ready in-vehicle routers include the AirLink MG90 and the AirLink MP70 and Sierra Wireless was the first vendor to deliver a FirstNet Ready in-vehicle router.

Smart Network Management Solutions: Deploying a device is only half the challenge when it comes to creating a robust communications network. Once a device is deployed, you need to be able to monitor the device, change its configurations on the fly, troubleshoot the device when there’s an issue, generate coverage maps and other reports, monitor signal strength, and perform other management activities.

Fortunately, Sierra Wireless offers comprehensive network management solutions. For example, our AirLink Management Service makes it easy to deploy, monitor, and upgrade any number of gateways and routers remotely. It accelerates time-to-deployment, reduces risk, and lowers maintenance costs with over-the-air monitoring and upgrades of edge devices. This means that utility companies don’t have to physically touch each edge device in a fleet to administer it, which helps to reduce the time and money needed to spend maintaining and updating these devices. 

End-to-End Security: Security is a vital component of any communications initiative that utility companies undertake. Sierra Wireless ensures security is an integral part of its solutions, allowing utilities to protect their data from end-to-end.

For example, AirLink Connection Manager (ACM) is a mobile-optimized VPN server that securely extends utilities’ enterprise networks to their vehicles. Designed to work with AirLink gateways and routers, the ACM consolidates security onto a single platform for all connected devices and applications in the vehicle area network. 

Eliminating the need for VPN software clients for individual devices and applications, the ACM simplifies deployment, enables utilities to retain management control over network access and mobile assets, and significantly reduces the costs of ensuring data security.

As discussed earlier, Sierra Wireless’ network management solutions also provide the ability to easily make remote security updates to their devices. Additionally, they can help utilities to spot any data usage spikes or other anomalies that might indicate a malicious actor is attempting to attack their devices. 

The end result for utility companies? End-to-end communications that securely connect people, mobile assets, and mission-critical applications to the enterprise.

FirstNet for Utilities Starts with Sierra Wireless

Utilities are increasingly recognizing the important role that an extended broadband priority service, like FirstNet, can play in not just ensuring critical communication in times of disaster, but also in helping them deliver services more efficiently and effectively to their customers.

Sierra Wireless can help incorporate FirstNet, Low Power Wide Area (LPWA), 5G, and other cellular communications technologies into your operations. View our webinar, Increase Capacity with Extended Broadband Priority Service for Utilities and Start with Sierra to learn more on how to take the first steps toward using new digital communications to reimagine your utility’s future in a more connected world.