Mobile infrastructure vendors are increasingly turning to off-grid power options as projects inlcuding FirstNet and natural disasters make it clear traditional supplies can no longer meet all the needs of US communication providers.

Mark Dettmer, president of wind power supplier Mission Critical Energy, told Mobile World Live (MWL) large communication providers have historically turned to his company for help with temporary disaster recovery. But now, battered by storms and with the construction of FirstNet on the horizon, Dettmer said these companies are starting to look for long-term solutions which don’t rely on a shaky power grid.

“The big communication players have always felt they knew the most about how to operate a communications world, but they’ve always done it in the luxury of the [power] grid,” Dettmer said: “Now they’re learning from the oil, gas and mining industries what works in an off-grid situation and all of that is being brought about because of FirstNet.”

Pushing outside the grid
Set to be built in the coming years by US operator AT&T, FirstNet will be a nationwide US mobile network dedicated for use by emergency responders. As a mission critical network, FirstNet will need to stretch to the most remote areas of the country and be capable of standing through the most dire of circumstances. As a result, Dettmer said FirstNet equipment vendors (not AT&T itself, but companies like Redline Communications which supply infrastructure equipment) are turning to his company for the wind-based solutions they provide.

Dettmer’s company supplies turbines which convert wind energy into battery power to run cell sites. These turbines can either function alone or alongside a backup system comprising diesel or solar power. Dettmer noted the turbine systems can withstand up to category-1 hurricane winds and, in more severe situations, can be cranked down, stored and redeployed after the storm passes.

Category-1 is the lowest rating in the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, with sustained wind speeds ranging from 75mph to 95mph, according to US National Hurricane Centre information. The highest rating is category-5, covering wind speeds of 157mph and above.

Dettmer said wind speeds are sufficient across most of the US – with the exception of the south-east – to make these turbines a viable power option. Wind power is particularly useful in areas including Utah and Wyoming, where solar power isn’t as reliable in the winter months, he added: a fact not overlooked by FirstNet’s equipment suppliers.

“It’s hard to get American companies to change the way they’ve always done things. But with FirstNet, you’re talking about powering places where it’s extremely hard to get to,” Dettmer said: “Once all the states agree to what they’re doing with FirstNet, I think there are a lot of suppliers to FirstNet infrastructure groups that will be calling us up.”

FirstNet moving forward
Earlier this week, Indiana became the 27th state or territory to opt-in to FirstNet’s build plans.

An AT&T company representative told MWL the build process is already underway in states which have opted in. The representative said AT&T is planning an “aggressive” rollout of Band 14 throughout the country, but noted initial steps in FirstNet’s construction will “likely vary from state-to-state and territory-to-territory based on the network needs of that state or territory”.