While the aging MAS radio infrastructure definitely offers some challenges, it is also the opportunity to take a fresh look at all the alternatives and see what option may be the best fit.

For years, Multiple Address (MAS) Radio has been a popular solution used by utilities to reach and aggregate Remote Terminal Units (RTUs). It is widely used by electric utilities, the oil and gas pipeline industry, water and wastewater systems, and railroads allowing communications with remote devices that are critical to the reliable and safe operation of the systems which they are part of.

The typical MAS radio system consists of a master radio that communicates with multiple remote radios on paired transmit/receive frequencies in the 900 MHz band. Transmit powers of 5 watts on masters and 1 watt on remotes, coupled with the use of directional antennas, allow reliable coverage out to 10 miles (and often well beyond) in many applications. Although data rates are limited to 4.8 kbps or, with reduced coverage, 9.6 kbps, the systems were more than adequate for the traditional SCADA applications they typically support.

During the early 1980s, the FCC allocated specific 25 kHz wide channels in the 928-929 MHz and 952-953 MHz bands for use by MAS operations. During this same timeframe the importance of SCADA connectivity to remote sites was of growing importance. In this environment there was a fairly widespread adoption of MAS solutions by many utilities.

If we fast forward 30 years, a lot has changed. With their narrow banding initiative to drive more efficient use of spectrum, the FCC requires new MAS licenses to use 12.5 kHz channels. (An earlier proposal to "un-grandfather" existing 25 kHz MAS licenses was put in place in 1990 and later rescinded in 1993). The industry is moving beyond simple visibility and control of remote sites because more data and more timely data allows increased efficiency and reliability of infrastructure. IP connectivity is an increasingly important component of many utility telecom strategies. Cybersecurity, physical security, and the potential for hacking or interruption of service have all grown in importance. And while simple connectivity was adequate in the 1980s, today there are numerous applications (including high bandwidth applications such as video surveillance) that would also be desirable at remote sites.

The bottom line is that there are significant portions of the existing MAS infrastructure that are critical, yet the technology in place on many of these systems is no longer supported by manufactures and has, effectively, reached the end of its useful life.

The good news is that there are a variety of solutions available.
  • While some of the legacy vendors have disappeared from the market, a few have continued to develop their solutions and currently offer solutions allow an "evolutionary" migration of legacy infrastructure.
  • There are the "revolutionary" solutions that represent "forklift" upgrades of existing MAS systems, but fundamentally offer an MAS like solution with a number of new features and capabilities.
  • Some utilities that have deployed AMI networks on a wide scale are evaluating ways to leverage these networks to provide connectivity to end devices currently connected via MAS.
  • Some utilities are moving towards a completely different approach by establishing "big pipe" IP connectivity to these remote sites. This allows a much more robust set of applications to make use of a shared connection. One common approach is to install fiber optic solutions between major substations and then use wireless options (such as WiMAX) to reach out from these locations to the more remote sites that need connectivity.
While all of these are worth considering, there are definitely certain criteria that often separate the successes from the more challenging projects.
  • Proper design and planning for solutions will make the current deployment go well and also better position you for the future. Even utilities with a handful of MAS radios may be communicating with dozens or hundreds of end-points. These are large, complex project and need to be appropriately planned and managed. Also, many of the solutions being deployed require the addition of towers or poles, and this can be both costly and time consuming. But even if the radio must be replaced in ten years, if the placement of the towers and poles were properly designed, a simple radio swap will be all that is involved.
  • Understand that the next solution may not have a thirty year life. It is much more realistic to expect solutions like proprietary point-to-point or point-to-multipoint radios or even standards-based approaches like WiMAX to have a ten to fifteen year life. But that is not necessarily a major concern given the point above.
  • Avoid the temptation to "just get by". Let's face it; major telecom infrastructure projects can be costly and require significant effort. But temporary solutions that may buy you a few months only delay the inevitable and often put reliability at risk. Some of the solutions mentioned above have significant benefits that you can begin realizing today if you migrate. Leveraging an existing AMI network can reduce the O&M expenses associated with aging MAS radio infrastructure or WiMAX connectivity can enable video surveillance. Putting off the "pain" can also delay the potential payback!
  • Ensure the plan for MAS is in line with (and ultimately converges into) the broader telecom strategy. For example, if a key component of your cybersecurity strategy involves all remote sites coming back through a firewall, a solution that hands you a serial connection at the master site leaves more pieces that must be integrated into the design.
  • And finally, watch that your licenses don't unknowingly expire. Are you certain that you know where the renewal notices are going or that someone is periodically checking the FCC database? Dealing with a lapsed license can be an extra headache on top of having to deal with aging infrastructure. It is also a problem that is reasonably easy to avoid.
While the aging MAS radio infrastructure definitely offers some challenges, it is also the opportunity to take a fresh look at all the alternatives and see what option may be the best fit. The West Monroe Partners team has helped a number of utilities take a holistic look at aging telecom infrastructure , evaluate the available options, choose the solution (or solutions) that fit best, and then assist with managing the implantation of next generation telecom solutions. How can we help you?