Cybersecurity spurs EnergyAustralia backflip on WiMAX

EnergyAustralia halts WiMAX rollout in favour of LTE for $100 million <i>Smart Grid, Smart City</i> trial

The energy utility charged with running the Federal Government’s $100 million Smart Grid, Smart City trial across NSW this week backflipped on plans to build a WiMAX wireless broadband network, instead choosing long term evolution (LTE) as a technology base.

EnergyAustralia initially announced the construction of a private WiMAX network in May, with plans to build 140 base towers and roll out 800 kilometers worth of fibre optic cable over an 18 month project for use with some 15,000 smart monitoring devices and mobile field computers. The network would also be used to help monitor the Smart Grid, Smart City trial spanning 50,000 homes in Sydney, Newcastle, Ku-ring-gai, and the Hunter region.

At the time, intelligent networks manager, Adrian Clark, told Computerworld Australia that EnergyAustralia would not pursue commercial use of the network.

While the WiMAX network is still in construction - with approximately 12 base stations built so far - EnergyAustralia this week announced a transition to competing fourth generation mobile broadband technology LTE. The utility will begin trialing the technology across 15 of 150 sites from next year. The utility will ultimately move completely to LTE, replacing existing WiMAX towers as they age.

The LTE portion of the network will be implemented and serviced by Ericsson, which won the contract for an undisclosed sum after a tender process.

It is unclear, however, whether the LTE portion of the network will use the same slice of 2.3GHz spectrum bought from vividwireless owner, Wireless Broadband Australia, for $10 million earlier in the year.

In a statement, EnergyAustralia managing director, George Maltabarow, cited cybersecurity as a key reason for the technology switch.

However, Ericsson broadband strategy manager, Colin Goodwin said the decision was more around future proofing.

“I’m sure WiMAX would have been adequate for [cybersecurity],” he said.

“There is a very strong movement by the world’s utilities to adopt mainstream telco standards.  That may sound like an obvious thing to do, but they didn’t used to do that; they used to work up their own standards and most of the utility equipment was based on relatively industry-specific protocols and standards. Using mainstream telco standards is itself a big change for the industry.”

Clark maintained the utility hadn't changed direction in its strategy.

"We don’t see a huge amount of difference between WiMAX and LTE," he said. "Our strategy is still to roll out a WiMAX network and the next steps next year is to start doing some LTE trials."

"I think the standards will converge over that period of time and I don’t there will be too much dissimiliarity between the two technologies longer term. The big thing for us is ensuring there’s backwards compatibility, which is the beauty of standards like WiMAX and LTE."

The replanning required to switch between wireless technologies would ultimately depend on whether EnergyAustralia uses the spectrum it already owns, according to Goodwin. It is believed the utility is yet to have a firm strategy for the transition, which will instead be determined once trials for the newer technology are completed next year.

EnergyAustralia’s announcement comes as a second win for Ericsson in as many days after the networking giant successfully aided Telstra in completing the telco's third trial for the technology. The high-definition videoconferencing call between Sydney and Melbourne marked the technology’s first connection between Australian capital cities and the introduction of Ericsson networking gear into Telstra’s existing NextG infrastructure.

“We don’t see LTE as a separate network but rather an integrated solution that interworks [sic] as transparently as possible with the Next G network,” Telstra executive director of networks and access technologies, Mike Wright, wrote in a blog entry this week. “Testing the technology on our actual network was one of the key objectives of the trial with Ericsson.”

The fourth generation mobile technology has gained steam in Australia of late, with Telstra running one of the largest local trials of the technology. Optus parent company Singtel has also begun trialing LTE across the Asia Pacific, including Australia. The technology’s development hinges on the release of analogue TV spectrum under digital dividend auctions to be hosted by the Federal Government in 2012 but Ericsson has warned telcos won’t wait to deploy the technology.

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAu

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Tags securitycybersecuritysmart gridsSmart Grid Smart City projectEnergyAustralia

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