Industrial Automation

MPLS-TP for Utilities: It's Time for New Backbone Technology

Emmanuel Waegebaert

The future of reliable power will run on smart grid technology. Smart grids help utilities efficiently manage and route power to improve reliability and uptime, and they allow operators to remotely maintain power delivery and manage grid equipment, as well as find and correct grid failures faster to reduce opportunities for blackouts.


To function properly, the smart grid also needs intelligent substations that can understand and react to data about grid conditions.


As smart utility technologies like these continue to roll out, they will need to be supported by robust, high-performance telecommunications systems that can manage heavy increases in network traffic and bandwidth consumption.


TDM-Based Solutions Give Way to MPLS-TP Technology


The technology behind a utility’s telecommunications network matters. It can positively or negatively influence operating expenses, employees and the ability to deliver power.


Most utilities have relied on TDM (time-division multiplexing) solutions as their backbone technology to transmit data across networks. But, as smart grids and smart substations become prolific, TDM is becoming obsolete. For example, many of the communications protocols used in smart substations, such as GOOSE, can’t be adequately carried over TDM equipment.


TDM can no longer keep up with bandwidth-intensive applications or support the technology that smart grids demand. Electric utilities also report that it’s becoming more difficult to find TDM equipment when it’s needed to address failure in the field.


So what’s the answer? MPLS-TP (multiprotocol label switching – transport profile) is the best option to replace TDM. It can support legacy systems and next-gen smart grid applications and transport most forms of traffic, including traditional serial-based technologies and IEC 61850 packet-based intelligent electronic devices.


As a simplified and optimized form of MPLS backbone technology for transport networks, MPLS-TP offers:


  • The ability to determine the best forwarding path for a packet to handle traffic based on Quality of Service (QoS) requirements.
  • Guaranteed bandwidth for mission-critical applications that require a certain amount of bandwidth to operate effectively.
  • Predefined back-up paths that can easily be set up to handle fault conditions.
  • Improved operations, administration and maintenance for better fault management, performance management and network visibility.
  • The ability to carry a wider variety of data over Ethernet and other types of networks.


By definition, packet-based networks are non-deterministic. (For example, when you hit “send” on an email, it goes from Point A to Point B. If the message isn’t received by Point B the first time, the request will be made again and again until the e-mail can be sent.) But this does not apply to MPLS-TP.


While TDM and MPLS-TP both rely on deterministic communication—they make sure a path is established before data is transmitted and then verify that everything is sent—the two networking technologies accomplish this in different ways.


TDM is time-based and divides a single communication channel into multiple timeslots to simultaneously transmit multiple signals over the same physical medium. MPLS-TP, however, is a packet-based forwarding technique that uses labels instead of IP addresses to segregate network traffic and forward packets through the network. This ensures that mission-critical applications receive the necessary bandwidth and QoS guarantees they need to maintain uptime. In other words: If the data is vitally important, it always gets first priority.


Unlike other packet-based technologies, MPLS-TP uses an NMS (network management system) approach that makes network management simple and predictable. Traffic delays and jitter are managed upfront by the NMS.


While TDM provides a predictable and consistent level of service for applications that need a certain amount of bandwidth, MPLS-TP reserves bandwidth for mission-critical applications so they receive the necessary level of service—even when the network is congested. This helps utilities main five-nines availability (the network is available 99.999% of the time).


From the Margins to Mainstream


While there have been some early adopters of MPLS-TP, the technology is moving quickly toward the early-majority phase. It’s no longer the backbone technology that “other utilities” are using—it’s the networking technology that every utility will rely on moving forward.


XTran networks from Belden | OTN Systems use MPLS-TP to communicate so protection can be guaranteed down to the lowest level in a utility’s network.


Built from the ground up for utilities, these systems are robust and will last in any environment. Their parameters, redundancy and speed capabilities have been tailored specifically for utilities.


Transitioning from a TDM to an MPLS-TP network can be daunting, which is why Belden does everything it can to guide you along the journey. From proof of concepts to installing the system in the field so you can see first-hand how it works, we’ll show you how an XTran network will help you use MPLS-TP to communicate so you’re ready for smart grid technology—and whatever comes after that.


Learn more about our XTran networks.


Related Links


Why MPLS Is Geared for You

MPLS-TP: The right networking technology

Power Utilities: Talk to the innovation leader!