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National Grid to spend £450m ripping and replacing fibre optic cable, digitalising networks.

"Perceived savings from extending core IT asset life can prove to be a false economy"

National Grid is planning a £450 million overhaul of its network infrastructure amid ambitious digitalisation plans.

A contract expected end-March will see it rip out and replace nearly 2,000 kilometres of aging fibre optic cable, establish a new Networks Operations Centre to handle central analytics and cybersecurity of enterprise networks, improve fault monitoring, and support "operationally critical services across... data centre sites".

The pending contract, revealed Friday Feb. 26 in a prior information notice,  comes as Grid -- one of the world's largest publicly listed utilities focused on transmission and distribution of electricity and gas -- invests heavily in digitalisation to drive down carbon emissions as part of a broader £7.1 billion spending plan for 2021-2025.

(As Group CIO Adriana Karaboutis notes: "Digitalisation facilitates the advancement of green technologies through increasing the volume and quality of data sharing via virtual networks, improved analytics, and the development of digital capabilities across the sector. This will become even more important as the energy sector converges with transport, telecoms and other industries, in the drive to full whole system decarbonisation".)

See also: Understanding ESG and sustainability measurement: from data to IT.

The contract will likely be broken into five lots (final scope awaits approval) to include "provision, support and maintenance, with continued cyber and physical security enhancements" for the following:

  1. Fibre Supply & Maintenance (UK only): Fibre provision, support, hardening for connections from National Grid's operational locations, across "customer-owned fibre network, and cross-site connections includes third-party lines, non-National Grid fibre links (dark & lit fibre), fault detection monitoring."
  2. Optel Managed Service (UK only): Updated SCADA systems, Operational Telephony, data services for electricity transmission and system operation across "customer-owned Operational Telecommunications (OPTEL) network." The contract will cover full technology replacement and ongoing maintenance, service, addition of new sites, the PIN notes, along with "provision of a National Operation Centre for faults, configuration, accounting, performance and security for Operational Telephony and fibre services."
  3. CNI Network Services (UK only): Operationally critical services across all control and data centre sites, and remote connectivity to field gas sites.
  4. Enterprise Networks (UK & US): Modernisation of a legacy MPLS transport network, SDWAN, internet and cloud access, labour for field support, hardware and infrastructure provision and maintenance.
  5. Networks Operations Centre: Providing and running a global Networks Operations Center for enterprise networks in US and UK, and some critical operational sites in the US and UK.
National Grid contractors at work boring a tunnel for infrastructure.

The contract looms as National Grid is required to balance an ever more dynamic grid infrastructure amid a surge in more volatile renewable inputs, and demands by regulators for a "modern, smarter, digitally enabled grid".

The company has been innovating hard, for example rolling out a new portal to streamline grid connections (in three years alone it has seen a four-fold increase in requests to connect, mainly from renewable and battery sources), rebuilding its core National Grid Gas Transmission (NGGT) data platform (MIPI) and its front end to provide clearer visuals and easier to use API feeds for direct access to data, and planning a shift to hybrid cloud, while replacing 400 WAN routers at 300 sites as they reach end of life. The National Grid fibre optic replacement contract comes as part of a planned £555 million of expenditure in network modernisation.

As its recent five-year plan notes, that investment is crucial.

"One of our key learnings from the T1 period is that perceived savings from extending core IT asset life can prove to be a false economy in the longer term. The impact on productivity, efficiency and customer satisfaction of poorly performing IT infrastructure is felt across the whole organisation.

The plan adds: "We have identified and evaluated a range of options to meet our hosting requirements and concluded that a hybrid cloud approach is the most effective and economically-efficient approach, blending the security of private cloud, where it is necessary, with cost-effective public services at a cost of £20 million."

Innovation is happening at pace across the UK's electricity system.

One example: UK Power Networks' project Constellation (recently awarded £14.38 million by Ofgem) which is looking at ways to digitally upgrade electricity substations, letting smart substations communicate with each other via 5G network to analyse millions of datapoints, track how the network is running and allow it to auto-configure itself to enable higher volumes of electricity to flow.

In 2019 Britain experienced the cleanest year on record. For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the amount of zero carbon power outstripped that generated from fossil fuels. Read National Grid's Electricity Transmission business plan 2021–26 here, and the recent National Grid fibre optic replacement PIN here.

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