The Third Grid: How Ameren is Bridging the Digital Divide

March 25, 2021

By: Esther Heymans

It is hard to exist without the internet. This past year has proven exactly how essential being able to connect online in order to communicate and work is. Quick, accessible, and secure connectivity is rapidly becoming a human necessity.  However, many parts of the United States lack that secure connection. These, usually rural, areas of the United States are called the middle mile. The middle mile is a signal of a digital divide, between areas that have access to connectivity and those still existing without it. In the fight to close this digital divide, an unlikely hero has emerged: electric companies.

In Missouri, Ameren has taken up the task of uniting the telecommunication and utility industries. While Ameren makes no claims to be a telecommunication company, they understand the importance of stable communication networks. Bhavani Amirthalingam, Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer at Ameren joined “The Current”  to explain this further. “Building a sustainable, reliable, secure, and smart grid is a key focus for all utilities, including Ameren,” Amirthalingam said. As clean, efficient energy becomes more widespread, there needs to be efficient communication to match. “Building an enhanced, secure communications infrastructure, what we often refer to as the third grid is a foundational capability,” Amirthalingam said. When telecommunication is lacking, electrical grids cannot reach their full potential or best serve their community.

What is the solution to these digital disparities in the telecom and electric power industries? For Ameren, they are twofold. The first solution comes with fiber. Fiber connectivity acts as a foundation for high-speed connectivity and communication. Fiber allows for stable access to communication networks for primarily wireless field locations. Having fiber as a consistent cornerstone allows networks to be assured that their communication will be secure and stable. By 2023, Ameren will have laid 4,500 miles of fiber, an action that will allow for redundancies across their network. Those redundancies will also provide more assurance of high-powered communication access to those along the network.

Ameren’s second solution surrounds a collaboration with Anterix, a broadband company with the largest hold over licensed and contiguous 900MHz spectrum in the US. Anterix’s 30-year lease of 900MHz private LTE to Ameren allows for revolutionary wireless access. This wireless access allows Ameren to be assured that their operations’ communications remain safe and secured.

However, the deal between Ameren and Anterix is not just a victory for corporations. 900MHz private LTE proves to be a promising weapon in the fight towards expanding middle mile broadband access. Ameren has been outspoken about the necessity of expanding rural broadband access. While they don’t have an intention of becoming a telecommunications company, they too recognize the importance of that “third grid.” According to Light Reading, a website dedicated to discussing the global communication industry, “Ameren was an early advocate for regulatory changes by the FCC that would enable broadband services in the 900 MHz spectrum band and is a founding member, along with Anterix, of the Utility Broadband Alliance.” Expanding broadband access to middle mile areas is yet another step towards assuring equitable access to broadband resources.

Amirthalingam is optimistic about the future of smart communication grids. “Communication infrastructure is so critical for the grid of the future and is a very key aspect for utilities,” Amirthalingam explained. By partnering with Anterix and tackling the disparity in internet services, Ameren is giving back to their community and curating innovation. They are fostering new technology that not only helps them secure their utility networks, but also shortens the digital divide.

Listen to episode 24 of our podcast, “The Current” to learn more!

Episode 24: Bhavani Amirthalingam, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Information Officer at Ameren Services, joins Brad to discuss the intersection between the electric power industry and telecommunications and what steps the industry is taking to boost access to broadband and the evolving smart grid.