Backup Power Makes Important Progress

Nov. 30, 2011
There is nothing dramatic about the cable industry's efforts to systematically upgrade its backup power efforts. What is dramatic, however, is the reasons that it is doing so. On one hand, there has been a series of natural emergencies during the past year, f...
There is nothing dramatic about the cable industry's efforts to systematically upgrade its backup power efforts. What is dramatic, however, is the reasons that it is doing so.On one hand, there has been a series of natural emergencies during the past year, from devastating tornados in Missouri to a flash snow storm on the east coast that kept some people in Connecticut without power for more than a week. Throw in an assortment of earthquakes and hurricanes, and the challenges -- and the importance of tackling them -- become apparent.The stakes also are higher for the cable industry in particular. MSOs have become a major primary line voice provider, but one that doesn't typically power services through the lines as the legacy carriers do.The bottom line is that issue of backup power -- and the broader topic of disaster recovery/business continuity (DR/BC) -- is far more vital for the industry than when an outage only meant that people would be without their MTV. "I think [backup power] is high on the priority list anywhere there are active phone customers," said David Atman, the president of Lindsay Broadband. "You want to be absolutely sure the telephone service doesn't go down."Backup power clearly is getting the industry's attention. In July, the SCTE, Alpha Technologies and CommScope announced a platform that integrates solar and fuel-cell technologies that can power systems for five to seven days -- and longer if a source of replenishment hydrogen is used, according to the companies. A prototype has been installed at the SCTE's headquarters in Exton, PA.It isn't just a matter of technology, however. The industry's backup powering infrastructure, like much of its overall architecture, is divided into three discreet sectors -- the headend/hub, the distribution plant and the premises -- that are handled differently. Naturally, the most attention is paid to the areas with the potential to impact the most people simultaneously.Gradual Power UpgradesInstead of dramatic breakthroughs, there are gradual improvements. "From the headend to the distribution channel to the actual premise, there are power consuming devices," said Eric Wentz, Alpha's director of marketing. "The common denominator throughout is the need for clean and reliable power that is uninterrupted with no spikes or surges. We see our customers continuing to help ensure an unobstructed flow of clean power in the network, and a proactive approach to addressing outages as well."Preparing for power outages requires a lot of thinking. Like the broader DR/BC continuity sector, making sure that backup power is as effectively deployed as possible has both technical and management layers. One without the other is not effective. Indeed, hauling in a lot of equipment without effectively managing it may be counter-productive by lulling operators into a false sense of security about the status of their backup powering.The technical priorities are fairly straightforward: The key is to gradually increase backup power supplies by deploying more batteries and keeping pace as technology changes. The management side of the equation is a bit more subtle. For one thing, the batteries need regular attention."The first thing that should really be taken to heart … is how to maintain battery life," said Derek DiGiacomo, the senior director of information systems and energy management programs for the SCTE. "What is the lifecycle of the battery? You can't assume [they will be ready to] run forever. You could then have an outage, have them fail, because they were not cycled."Corporate IT departments more commonly see the big picture in BC/DR, which has technical and corporate planning elements. For cable operators, the endeavor more often is divided among several disciplines. The Emergency Alert System (EAS), for instance, is an important part of an effort to alert subscribers when their power may be about to go down due to bad weather. Backup powering is important in minimizing those outages.But those steps alone don't represent a DR/BC solution. As time goes by, the industry will need to spend a lot of time doing such things as working out operational scenarios for internal communications if the usually designated executive can't be reached due to the emergency, to exploring options if refueling vehicles is not allowed on the streets. There also is room for innovation.For instance, Charles Cheevers, a product line manager and CTO for ARRIS' EMEA region, said a common-sense innovation will be to give the system the flexibility to bypass aggregation points that are not operational. In such a scenario, both participants in a call could be in locales in which the power is working, but the aggregation point located in an area where power is down. A simple way to increase reliability is to enable the call to avoid the trouble spot.The bottom line is that emergencies are happening more often than in the past -- or at least seem to be -- and that the cable industry's success as a telephone and high-speed data provider has made its DR/BC initiatives far more important than in the past.Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor for Broadband Technology Report. Reach him at [email protected].