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In this first part of a two-paper set, the operative configuration (OC) is defined as the state (closed/open) of the protective and switching devices installed on the medium voltage distribution network. OC identification is fundamental for the outage management and state estimation of these networks, particularly for those with a low level of real-time supervision and control. In these networks, however, it is difficult to obtain the OC with conventional analytical techniques because of the scarcity or unavailability of monitored devices and measuring points. To overcome this, a novel methodology of inference is presented here. Part I develops a real-time approach based on power flow analysis, fuzzy fault currents calculation and rule-based Type-2 Fuzzy Logic Systems. Part II proposes an extended real-time approach based on fuzzy relation equations and fuzzy abductive inference. The performance of the methodology is evaluated on a real distribution feeder, and results are shown and discussed.