Interview with Allen Tharp, Senior Manager – Network Strategy, at Xcel Energy and chair of the Utility Broadband Alliance’s (UBBA) Use Cases working group

Q: Please tell us about yourself and your career background?

Allen: I started my career working at Motorola installing wireless systems as a field engineer/project leader, and I later returned to serve as a systems engineer manager for worldwide deployments. I also worked at Southern Linc as a senior engineer and later as Manager of Technology Development. Between these Southern Linc roles, I worked at Sprint as a network design manager and for the past 10 years, I worked at Duke Energy in a variety of roles, the last of which was a technology evaluation manager. Now, I’m at Xcel Energy as a Senior Manager over network strategy and planning in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Q: Can you provide some background as to why Xcel decided to join UBBA? What initially sparked your interest in utility broadband?

Allen: Xcel saw an opportunity with UBBA to connect with a group of people who are trying to achieve the same goals. Utilities are realizing that we’ve all built purpose-built networks, which were built to assignment. We were solving problems, but they were being solved alone in a micro-environment.

When you consider the broader environment, I believe we could have done things more efficiently to solve many different use cases. We could have presented some holistic network designs up front, but unfortunately, we weren’t aware of that yet. Things are changing so rapidly with distributed energy and the ADMS system that the way telecommunications is done in the utility industry has to change.

We saw UBBA as a great opportunity to get together with like-minded people, inside the utility industry, to address some common problems and generate solutions to champion the advancement and development of private broadband networks.

Q: What is the current focus of the Use Cases working group? And what is your vision for this group and how would you define long-term success?

Allen: We’re seeking to define a set of use cases with our members and across the electric utility industry. For instance, if we had a common underlying network that supported our needs, what would that look like? We aim to capture use cases but don’t want to outline what use cases are the most important. Instead, we want to gauge where we’re going across the industry, as well as rank the use cases and let others fall out.

Once the use cases are defined for the electric utilities, we’ll shift during the first quarter of 2020 to focus on outlining the use cases for the water and gas utilities, by tracking their flows. Subsequently, we’ll gather collective input and establish a set of use cases across the industry to move forward with. The use cases will serve to capture utilities’ interest through demonstrating how siloed applications can be collapsed down.

I would define success as capturing the use cases, ranking them and obtaining an agreement across the industry. The beautiful part about this industry is I can go speak to fellow utilities and not “reinvent the wheel” through UBBA sharing of knowledge and lessons learned.

Q: What responsibilities do you have as chair of this working group? 

Allen: I want to ensure that there’s balance of interplay between utility persons and vendor groups. We need to establish our use cases, but we want to hear everybody’s voice. I appreciate the insight that the vendors in UBBA bring, as they understand things that the utility members don’t. For example, they have access to things being utilized in other parts of the world we may not be aware of, which I think is great.

As chair of the Use Cases working group, I’m striving to strike a balance – to ensure everyone can provide input – and to gather things that we might not have thought of or seen before. So far, I believe it has been working within the alliance.

Q: What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of your membership with the Utility Broadband Alliance (UBBA)?

Allen: What I have found most rewarding is bouncing ideas off likeminded peers and discovering that we all are going down the same path, but we are at different points on that path. I can help someone that is beginning on the path, and Southern Linc, for example, can help me since they’ve floated down the path already.

Sharing insights and collaborating across the ecosystem between utilities, technology providers, regulators and thought leaders is the most rewarding aspect of UBBA. It’s a consortium that is marching toward the same goal and, even though we’re at different points, we are willing to help each other to advance private broadband wireless connectivity. I believe this is a great group that is already producing benefits to increase the security, reliability and resilience of electric grids. I envision our collaboration helping us, not only from an Xcel Energy standpoint, but from an overall industry standpoint.