Switching at scale
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Over in the US, Alliant Energy recently completed its transition to DMR Tier III. Sam Fenwick hears from those involved in the project about its delivery and their tips for other utilities

Imagine your radio system covers 54,000 square miles and is instrumental to meeting the needs of nearly a million electricity users and more than 400,000 natural gas customers, but it’s close to 25 years old and consists of a few disparate systems. This was the situation that Alliant Energy, an energy utility based in the US Midwest in the states of Iowa and Wisconsin, faced in 2015.

Ron Graber, director – operational resources at Alliant Energy, says: “We had three different legacy radio systems [iDen, analogue trunking and conventional analogue] covering various parts of our territory. Our primary requirements with an upgrade were safety, for both our workers and our customers, and the efficient dispatch of work. We wanted a system that, from the point of view of coverage and usability, was as good as, or better than, what we had.”

The company opted for a 122-site DMR Tier III system to be supplied by Tait Communications in a number of phases and that would be supported by a 12-year managed services contract beginning from the end of the roll-out’s first phase.

Over the course of the project, the completion of which was announced in October 2017, Alliant Energy replaced ~1,300 legacy radios and the radio equipment at 122 tower sites, and integrated numerous dispatch and operations centres across the territory. Through replacing the old systems with a single modern one, Alliant Energy enabled interoperability across all states, users and emergency communications, co-ordinated by two dispatch centres: one in Iowa, one in Wisconsin.

Managing the transition
Graber says that from Alliant Energy’s perspective, the most difficult aspect of the project was “managing the engineering constraints – we were balancing both the need to maximise coverage from each tower while also understanding the physical load that could be added to the existing towers. In some cases this meant using a two antenna system, in others we used one antenna, in other cases we identified different towers.”He adds that this was an iterative process that became lengthy at times, as it was complicated by leases and other agreements. The other major challenge was trying to accommodate a parallel system migration approach, from a legacy system that was no longer supported, and Graber says that this was addressed by piloting various cutover approaches.

Dave Helfrich, CMP, PMP, project manager at Tait Communications, adds that another significant challenge was “the change management to convince the [end-users] that what they were getting is much better”. He adds that Tait worked directly with Alliant Energy and the utility had a change management project manager who was involved with the project from day one.

“She made sure that she completely understood how the users use their three systems today, how they were going to transition and then how to convince them that what they’re getting is better or at least equal to what they’ve got.” He says the training was done in stages, “so it wasn’t two days before, nor was it six months before they cut over”. Helfrich also highlights the way in which Alliant Energy made sure that the line supervisors, the managers of the employees who were using the previous system, were the ones training them and knew how the system operated. “If you get the managers’ buy-in then you have a better chance that the users buy in too.”

Helfrich goes into more detail about how the transition was managed. “Alliant Energy had nine different regions of communications and three of those regions had to transition from iDen to the DMR and the other six systems from either the analogue trunking or analogue conventional systems. We completely installed the DMR system on a region-by-region basis onto the tower sites and then we reduced the capacity of the legacy system so that you could bring up the DMR system, and we were simultaneously doing coverage testing, verification, system acceptance testing, and then they would go ahead and, on a specific date, would cut over a region at a time.

“There was a very detailed migration transition plan that was well timed and it was rehearsed beforehand and then it would go into operation. We had technicians and trainers available and we’d do a complete radio test check on the day or the morning of the cut-over.”

One of the challenges associated with the project was around spectrum. Helfrich says Alliant Energy had a consultant that was two steps ahead of the regional transitions, who was focused on making sure that “the frequencies were the correct ones, that there wasn’t any intermodulation or the overlap wasn’t too great for it, but it was a challenge. We were in the Chicago umbrella of frequencies on a number of the sites so there was some difficulty in getting some of those. But out of 250 channels, only one had some issues on it and we were able to swap it out for another one.”

Helfrich says with this project, there was nothing he’d have done differently given that every milestone was met. “Alliant Energy had very strong project management and change management teams, and that made the difference. I’ve been doing projects for about 35 years, but this one absolutely blew my mind just because of how smooth it went and how organised it was.”

He says Tait provided Alliant Energy with its EnableFleet feature, which allows over-the-air-programming (OTAP) of the radios, making it easier to perform configuration changes and update talkgroups and firmware. While the project was specifically focused on voice, “they’re planning on developing [the use of data-based communications], they’ve got the platform for it”.

The mobile radios allow direct truck-to-truck communication, and this helped Alliant Energy co-ordinate the assistance it provided to the disaster relief effort in Florida, in the wake of Hurricane Irma

Dealing with disasters
“The analogue Talkaround feature (allowing simplex truck-to-truck radio communication) is very helpful,” says Graber, “especially if we move resources outside our area.”

This proved its worth in September 2017 when approximately 200 Alliant personnel from Iowa and Wisconsin – line workers, safety staff, mechanics and support staff and about 10 trucks – spent two weeks in Florida contributing to the response to Hurricane Irma, part of a nationwide support effort by utility companies. “The radios allowed all those volunteers to remain in touch with each other, co-ordinate and offer their support,” Graber says.

Helfrich adds that the radios were programmed so that “a single button press could take them from the DMR trunked system to the analogue talkaround. We made it very simple and [they could] quickly respond that way”.

Monitoring jitter and latency
What advice does Graber have for utilities that might be looking to do a similar project on the same scale? He highlights the need to acquire the necessary spectrum ahead of the detailed site engineering process and deployment, though “at times we would have spectrum available at a site, yet the site had tower constraints stopping us from deploying there”.

He adds: “In our case, the field operational constraint was that we had to keep both systems running during the migration. From a spectrum perspective, it is important to know your current and future requirements and the spectrum required to migrate from one system to another.”

Graber says it is important to ensure your backhaul is ready and there is active monitoring to determine jitter and latency. He also recommends the creation of fleet installation guides/standardised installation procedures, along with a two-touch approach, with the first being installing the new radio equipment and the second being removing the old radio equipment from its temporary location – rather than trying to integrate a new radio running in a legacy mode with an existing ageing system.

He adds that if the utility has decided to replace its dispatch system, it should perform this upgrade first if possible. Graber also stresses the need to manage the change that end-users will experience, especially in terms of ensuring that they are ready to use the new system once it is up and running. Finally, he recommends the use of customised/right-size training packages.

Tait’s Helfrich says: “Probably the strongest [piece of advice I can give] is to make sure that you have a very clear focus of what you want to achieve and stay to that focus – that really enables a very successful programme. Make sure that you have very clear communications and a clear direction and path [to where you want to go].”

Given Alliant Energy’s decision to go for a voice-first approach, it will be interesting to see how it develops its system in the years to come. While big projects come with a host of difficulties, it is encouraging to see one that succeeded and the way in which this was achieved.

Don’t forget about data
While Alliant Energy opted for a voice- first approach, this piece would be incomplete without a mention of DMR Tier III’s data capabilities and how they can be used by utilities. While Shannon’s Law and DMR’s 12.5kHz channels mean that its data throughput is limited to a modest 4.8kbps per time slot, or 9.6kbps if both are used for data, this is sufficient for both SCADA and telemetry applications.

Here in the UK, Western Power Distribution (WPD) is using its DMR Tier III network to carry secondary SCADA telemetry data, which enables smart grid management, across a 55 square kilometre area. This allows WPD to detect problems on its network when they occur and removes the need to send dispatch teams to manually search areas of the grid.

The system is underpinned by Simoco Wireless Solutions’ Pulse Air Data Modem units and consists of a fully integrated IP network that connects information sent from data modems or remote terminal units (RTUs) to SCADA masters.

While all of the more than 200 Xd DMR 50 Watt Tier III base stations have been deployed, the roll-out is still ongoing and scheduled for completion by the end of 2019. Of the 14,000 Simoco Pulse Air Data Modems (in VHF) to be provided to WPD, 10,000 have been delivered and WPD has deployed around 3,000.

For more information on the use of data over DMR Tier III by utilities, see Vaughan O’Grady’s “Utilities: DMR Tier III for IoT?” piece, which was published in the June 2016 issue of Land Mobile and can be viewed at: www.landmobile.co.uk/indepth/utilities-dmr-tier-ii...

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