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Communicating in a Competitive World

Communicating in a Competitive World

Faced with the task of improving customer services and capturing new customers, Scottish Hydro-Electric was forced to upgrade its communications system. PEI looks at some of the work the company has carried out.

Scottish Hydro Electric (SHE) is an expanding energy group which serves customers throughout Britain. The company`s roots are in the north of Scotland which accounts for 69 per cent of its electricity sales. The company generates and delivers energy through its own power system network to domestic, commercial and industrial customers. Since 1990, SHE has more than doubled its volume of electricity generated, and today England and Wales accounts for almost one-third.

In 1991, the company was privatized, transforming itself almost overnight from a state-owned company into a major power supplier within the UK electricity market. With the transformation came a diversification of interests – which in turn called for a change in its communications needs.

Customer responsiveness

Since privatization, the company has become more focussed on meeting the requirements of their customers. This has had a significant effect on SHE`s telecommunications infrastructure. For example, a communications centre has been set up at Perth to handle customer calls and, at peak times, redirect overflow traffic to an auxiliary communications centre located in Inverness. Customers dialling a single service number from anywhere in the country now find that their enquiries are dealt with at the first point of call or, should this prove impossible, find that they are referred to a maximum of one other service point.

Another major change was the formation of the information services division. The company merged its management information systems (MIS) division, largely responsible for running its billing and work management mainframe computer, with its telecommunications division.

The company recognised that computing and communications were no longer separate entities but formed a common information technology entity. The merger also resulted in a new management structure with project managers for communications, software management, applications and client-server architecture.

The decision to combine MIS and communications was seen as a radical step. It provided SHE with client-server applications which run across both areas – serving SHE`s own needs as well as those of their other customers.

Radio communication

Given the vast expanse of geography that accounts for SHE`s service area, reliable radio communication was essential in efficiently servicing their customers, maintaining their facilities and responding to emergency situations.

SHE had a conventional non-trunked radio system. One of the main weaknesses of the old system was limitations in the data transmission performance. The data rate was only 20 bit/s. Mobile telephone services were not available at the time, so SHE installed a large VHF system to provide communications to mobile operatives. The system was 20 years old and desperately needed replacing. SHE looked for a system that would be advantageous to it while helping it to better serve its customers.

Following a reorganization of the radio spectrum, and due to growing radio communications needs, SHE chose to move to a trunked radio solution. There were a number of trunked radio options. The first decision was to choose a system based on open MPT 1327 standard instead of using proprietary, manufacturer specific technologies (see box).

Nokia`s ActioNet professional mobile radio (PMR) system was chosen due to its high capacity, wide area performance, reliability features, and good references in other similar projects. ActioNet multiplied the existing data rate by a factor of 60.

PMR was also important in maintaining the electrical distribution system. What was required was as near-total coverage as possible since SHE`s linesmen or operators are often a long way from population centres and needing to contact their control centre. In the north and west of Scotland, coverage from public cellular operators is not available. Although the cellular coverage is improving there will probably remain areas which will never be served.

ActioNet provides flexible wireless data transmission facilities for customized applications. SHE took full advantage of them by implementing a distributed tele-control system called Salome (Substation, Alarm and Load Operation Monitoring Equipment). With the old VHF system in operation since the 1970s, Salome had to share air-time with all other users of the network. ActioNet, being based on an MPT 1327 trunking standard, did not have this limitation.

APD Communications developed a Data Gateway to interface the Salome network with the ActioNet system making use of the standardized MAP 27 data interface of the Nokia R40 mobile radio.

According to SHE, a major reason why Nokia has become an important supplier is the company`s ability to provide a wide range of complete systems.

Another important factor Nokia had going for it was its local support capabilities. The company has a project manager as well as the technical support department in Huntington (England).

One reason why SHE did not go to a local cellular operator was that none could guarantee priority service in times of an emergency and this was absolutely necessary.

If power lines fall down, SHE operators need to get in there. And to get the coverage it required, a total of around 150 telecommunication sites were needed. On the fixed mobile side SHE has in excess of 340 substations controlled by Salome. ActioNet provides SHE with guaranteed communications in any situation. The result is shorter down time of the electricity grid in the event of failures.

SDH into 21st century

In addition to the ActioNet network, SHE is upgrading its telecommunications infrastructure to include a Nokia-supplied synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) transmission network. The company has been digitising its microwave transmission network for a number of years and increasing its capacity to fulfil the internal requirements of SHE.

Most of the company`s internal traffic goes on the Perth-Aberdeen-Dundee route and, as it had acquired a PTO (public telephone operator) licence, it also had to consider external customers as well. There was no option to upgrading.

When faced with upgrading the links between Perth and Aberdeen via Dundee, SHE`s three principal population centres, it looked at the possibility of using SDH. Although the company provides service to external customers over more-readily saleable fibre-optic links, it also needs to offer services to non-SHE customers. SHE decided to invest in SDH technology rather than face the costs of upgrading again in the future.

SDH is a European standard derived from the US Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) to provide a unified method for using the high bandwidths offered by optical fibres. It is based on three multiplexing levels: STM-1 at 155 Mbits/s; STM-4 AT 622 Mbits/s and STM-16 at 2.5 Gbits/s. Single mode fibre links can be operated at any of the three multiplexing levels, provided that the maximum spans between multiplexors is suitable. A microwave version is also being defined which operates at 155 Mbits/s.

New services

SHE expects an increasing demand for data services in the future, with large customers moving to wider bandwidth services. One area it sees as important is video-on-demand, where service could feed into a home via an imbedded optical cable in the power cable. This technology is in its infancy at the moment, but SHE could use it in other applications, such as relaying information about customers` energy usage. There is considerable scope for a marriage between electrical supply and telecommunications.

Communications for utilities

Energy and power together with oil, gas and water supplies, are industries, which simply must provide an uninterrupted supply. From day to day customer services to dealing with emergencies, the critical nature of utility operation places ultimate demand on flexible and reliable radio connections.

Open standards are the trend of today also in professional radio communications. The MPT 1327 standard has been designed for the most demanding organisations. The standard covers trunking technology, which use available frequencies far more efficiently than conventional non-trunked systems. Importantly, MPT 1327 is an open standard, meaning that terminals and systems from different manufacturers are compatible.

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