Out of this world connectivity for UK Power Networks

When most businesses talk about “keeping the lights on” they’re typically referring to the smooth running of IT systems. When the people at UK Power Networks have the conversation, they mean it literally. Which is why, when the electricity distributor needed to ensure reliable data comms across its network of sites, it turned to another Critical National Infrastructure provider, Arqiva, to make it happen.

Challenge

As Britain’s biggest electricity distributor, millions of homes and businesses rely on UK Power Networks to keep everything switched on. The company owns and maintains a network of thousands of miles of electricity cables across London, the South East and the East of England, and is the first port of call in the event of a power cut or when a new supply is required.

This is a business built on continual monitoring of its electricity network, uninterrupted supply and the lightning fast response of its engineers.

Effective communication is therefore an operational imperative. With an existing paging-based system reaching end-of-life and due for replacement, the company needed a failsafe communications network to maintain contact with its field force, and to support its secondary Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) network.

UK Power Networks turned to Arqiva to solve this problem due to its proven track record in delivering solutions for the utilities sector.

The chosen approach for the secondary SCADA network was an Arqiva managed network based on Inmarsat’s satellite-enabled Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) M2M solution – providing broadband data communications from small, lightweight M2M terminals. This would complement Arqiva’s private VSAT network already used by UK Power Networks for their primary SCADA network and enable UK Power Networks engineers to remotely operate equipment to restore customers’ power supplies quickly in the event of a power cut and monitor and receive regular status updates from the field.

With quality of relationship a key selection consideration, the question was who could deliver it all. As a UK Critical National Infrastructure provider itself, and a business committed to cooperation innovation and straight talking, Arqiva was the logical choice.

“Service availability is our number one priority, and Arqiva gets 5 stars. The satellite network supporting our critical SCADA system is consistently reliable, and any incidents are dealt with proactively and efficiently. It’s a sign of a great relationship that we’re now looking to the Arqiva team to help us evolve and innovate for the future.”

Solution

Having been awarded a multi-year framework agreement in late 2019, by 2020 Arqiva had completed the design of the BGAN M2M managed service and was ready to deploy across UK Power Network’s extensive geographic network.

The selected BGAN M2M all-in-one terminals are perfectly sized (at just 20cm by 20cm) and come with the added benefit of being easy to install. The network is designed to scale to keep pace with the anticipated increase in SCADA communications across the low voltage (LV) network. It also features the high levels of availability and resilience to power failures that a Critical National Infrastructure service requires.

This latter point is crucial. Electricity companies have the ability to ‘black start’ operations (restoring operations without having to rely on external power) in the event of a partial or total shutdown.

Their communication infrastructures need to do the same – maintaining connectivity even if local cellular towers lose power. Arqiva’s BGAN M2M fully managed service network makes this possible.

While the full deployment of the BGAN M2M solution is scheduled for early 2021, Arqiva has already deployed over 800 Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) at UK Power Network substations to support its primary SCADA network. This secure, private dedicated network provides primary communications, with some terminals deployed to offer a failover capability to ensure seamless disaster recovery in the event of disruption.

Going beyond the design of the technical solution, Arqiva provides a complete managed service – from installation of the VSAT and BGAN terminals to the ongoing infrastructure and maintenance support, cybersecurity protection and more. All to help make sure everybody’s lights stay on.

Results

With service availability, speed of incident management and project delivery all key elements of this extensive project, feedback from UK Power Networks is consistently positive. The VSAT solution allows the distributor to add a new level of resilience to its primary SCADA network. While the roll-out of the BGAN project will further enhance its ability to leverage performance data from across its infrastructure and give its remote engineers the connectivity they need to rapidly react to, and resolve, issues in the field.

Such is the relationship that UK Power Networks regularly update Arqiva on their technical and business roadmap. They both work collaboratively as long-term business partners to offer support and guidance both now and into the future.

“As a Critical National Infrastructure provider ourselves, we inherently understand the challenges facing UK Power Networks. It’s our job to relieve some of that pressure – not only by delivering the peace of mind that comes from complete service assurance today, but to understand and align our solutions to UK Power Networks roadmap. Just as a true long-term partner should.”

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