A number of utilities are already benefiting from IP/MPLS installations. Tearing down communications silos and merging networks is just one of the benefits, and one of the first was Canada's AltaLink transmission utility.

“We've gone through all phases of the project, from proof of concept to technology evaluation, vendor reviews, and lab setup and testing,” said Clinton Struth, principal engineer, network communications at AltaLink. AltaLink built its own lab to conduct “a whole array of interoperability tests” ahead of deployment, Struth added.

The utility started its fourth year of deployment in January 2013 and now has some 300 nodes in service. “We're carrying everything from current differentials, distance teleprotection, SCADA, emergency voice and radio, basically all the traditional services in addition to Internet backhaul, field office and internal corporate network connectivity, VoIP solutions and synchrophasors,” Struth said.

This is a far cry from when he started with the utility 13 years ago. At that time, there were three very rigid and very distinct communications silos. “Now we're the one service provider network for the whole utility,” he said, adding that, “while there are some other technologies coming available, from our perspective, IP/MPLS is the only technology that can do that. Nothing is as mature as IP/MPLS.”

With IP/MPLS, he noted, “You can leverage intelligence into network layer, yet you still have complete control to prioritize traffic through your network. There's an array of different knobs you can turn to make do what you need it to do.”

Struth echoes Alcatel's Madden in citing the importance of the system's “rigid prioritization” feature in AltaLink's decision to go with IP/MPLS. Essentially, the system says, “I will drop everything to keep teleprotection and SCADA alive,” said Struth. Although other technologies, such as carrier Ethernet, are offering similar services now, “when we were doing our review, nothing could match what MPLS was doing,” Struth added. “And the proof is we have it running with only eight of us in the team working on it, not an army.”

National Grid in Massachusetts has just launched a smart grid communications pilot project that encompasses multiple applications — AMI, HAN and DA — operating simultaneously over a Cisco GridBlocks IPv6 network.

The team includes: Itron (AMI and HAN); Cisco (communication technology and network management); GE (WiMAX); Verizon (IP and wireless communications services); IBM (legacy system integration); Wipro (web development services); GridMaven (network monitoring and management); Navigant (evaluation services); S&C Electric, G&W Electric, Beckwith Electric (DA); Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (protective relays and automation), Lindsey Manufacturing (current and voltage sensors) and Power Delivery Products (capacitor control and monitoring).

The program will involve 15,000 customers in northern Worcester, Massachusetts. While the bulk of the pilot program will use a GE WiMAX transport system, National Grid also is looking at Verizon LTE as a way to get out of the networking business. The utility has wisely built its own lab to verify its design and the interoperability of all the equipment included in the pilot project.

Still, it is a big country and one size does not fit all, nor does one combination of networks fit all when it comes to expanding and leveraging the smart grid. Take PPL Electric Utilities (PPL), for example. With a stimulus pilot program grant from the Department of Energy, the utility installed a DA system that included a full suite of reclosers, motorized air brakes, remote capacitor controllers and a DMS, all tied together by WiMAX radio.

According to Tim Figura, PPL's manager of telecommunications, WiMAX radios were installed on towers at eight substations, with backhaul from the substation by fiber. Why WiMAX? At the time, PPL wanted a broadband-speed radio network to connect all 500 DA devices in the program, said Figura. But experience can be a tough teacher: The test comes first, the lesson later.