By Stewart Kantor
No reasonable person would question that we are entering a phase of explosive growth in consumer, commercial and industrial automation. Many of these applications have been rebranded under the new catch-phrase, Internet of Things (IoT). For electric utilities and other mission critical entities, however, the wide scale implementation of the IoT isn’t completely straightforward. Electric utilities have been using data communications for remote monitoring and control since the late 1960s, long before the most advanced corporate enterprises adopted distributed data communications.
The ready availability of public broadband wireless and wired IP networks, commonly used for corporate and consumer data communications, introduces risks to the operation of mission critical industrial networks and grids. Some of these risks are so substantial, from distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) to the introduction of many points-of-failure, that they may not warrant adoption of the technology, especially if the public networks lack sufficient security and quality of service. In recent years, however, new radio technologies have emerged that enable utilities to deploy cost effective, scalable, secure, private wireless Internet across their service territories. In addition, these new radio technologies are capable of leveraging a utility’s existing wireless communications infrastructure to create a completely private IoT.
In the late 1960s, utilities introduced a data communications protocol know as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and automatic generation control (AGC) that was originally designed to help utilities remotely monitor and control key elements of the electric grid, and today it continues to be the primary data communications protocol for the management of industrial networks worldwide. SCADA systems were initially implemented over highly reliable, circuit switch leased phone lines supplied by the Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC). ILEC’s were closely regulated entities until the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which negatively impacted the mission critical design of the legacy landline telecommunications network. Today, SCADA systems continue to be the lifeblood of most industrial networks but still depend on secure and reliable physical connections to be effective. Unfortunately, the legacy landline networks are deteriorating with no viable substitute of similar quality and security. As a result, utilities are left with a difficult choice of using either less secure, less reliable alternatives or no reasonable replacement. This has led utilities to search for new private wireless alternatives to address the gap.
Prior to deploying SCADA networks, most utilities in the US already had deployed mobile wireless voice systems known as Private Land Mobile Radio (PLMR). These networks are most commonly seen in use by first responders as either radios installed in vehicles or handhelds. All utilities in the US own, operate and maintain similar PLMR systems for their day-to-day operations such as troubleshooting and maintaining all aspects of the electric grid including coordinating their remote workforce during the restoration of power outages. These systems use small slices of very high frequency (VHF) and ultra high frequency (UHF) frequencies and are capable of transmitting voice communications over long ranges. In addition, PMLR systems are designed and operated in a similar fashion to commercial cellular networks, except these networks are exclusively used by the utility. Even with the introduction and evolution of commercial cellular voice and data communications in the 1980s, utilities continue to operate, maintain and upgrade their PLMR systems at a great expense.
Utilities continue to use their own PLMR networks for many reasons including concerns about the reliability and availability of commercial cellular networks during manmade and natural disasters. Commercial cellular base stations and tower sites are powered by the same electric grid that is maintained by the utility companies. Commercial wireless operators have chosen to provide a minimal amount of backup power at their tower sites.
In 2008, after a series of natural disasters and prolonged network failures including outages during Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Communications Commission proposed an eight-hour minimum of backup power at all cellular tower sites, which was contested in court and eventually won by the cellular industry. The negative consequences of these limitations continue to be felt during natural disasters including Hurricane Sandy, during which one quarter of the cell towers were out for prolonged periods of time. Utilities, on the other hand, maintain several weeks of backup generator power at their towers’ sites in preparation for these types of occurrences. The limitations of the cellular systems don’t stop with backup power of the cell sites. It also involves a host of security and service quality issues related to the fundamental design of commercial systems. Commercial wireless systems, for example, are designed and deployed with the assumption that only a small portion of subscribers are using the network at any one time for voice and data communications. This concept is referred to as oversubscription and it is a fundamental design flaw for mission critical voice and data networks that need to be available with the same quality at all times.
The utilities’ PLMR infrastructure, however, is now emerging as a jump-off point for the implementation of a private IoT, eliminating the gap created by the decay of the landline network and the security and quality of service issues posed by broadband commercial wired and wireless networks. New software defined radio technology using fourth generation wireless standards similar to LTE systems and operating in exclusive licensed VHF and UHF frequencies are enabling utilities to leverage their existing PLMR tower and backhaul infrastructure to implement a completely secure and scalable private IoT. These new private IoTs are designed in a similar fashion to operate over the utility’s service territory such as PLMR networks but are independent of the public Internet, eliminating external security threats including the potential devastating impact of a DDoS. These innovations in radio technology are occurring at an ideal time for utilities as they contemplate a major expansion in their SCADA networks to support automation of all aspects of the electric grid. http://www.fullspectrumnet.com
About the author:
Stewart Kantor is the CEO and a co-founder of Full Spectrum Inc, a wireless telecommunications company that designs, develops and manufactures FullMAX, its private broadband wireless Internet technology for mission critical industries. He has more than 20 years of experience in the wireless industry including senior level positions in marketing, finance and product development at AT&T Wireless, BellSouth International and Nokia Siemens Networks. Since 2004, Kantor has focused exclusively on the development of private wireless data network technology for mission critical industries including electric utilities, oil and gas companies, and the transportation industries. http://www.fullspectrumnet.com