Does critical utility data belong on the same network as Snapchat selfies and fitness trackers?
Connected utility networks are one of the most important and valuable assets belonging to a nation – not just because of the inherent value of a network that keeps a nation ticking over, but because of the way connected utilities can revolutionise this infrastructure. Smart meters will give energy providers the opportunity to better understand and balance their network, create new tariffs and make the whole system far more efficient. If the US National Grid follows the same approach to efficiency as Massachusetts – a state that has led the way when it comes to smart meters and other measures – the savings could be as much as $3.6 billion.
How to transport the data that will make these savings possible has to be expertly considered when smart meters are rolled out. These meters are considered as IoT devices, but grouping connected utilities with fitness trackers doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Neither does connecting devices through networks that carry all kinds of data, from business communications, to selfies bound for Snapchat or to people chasing Pokémon around the streets.
Some data and applications are too important to be part of the universal concept of IoT. Connected utilities should instead be part of a separate category: Mission Critical IoT devices. And this separate category requires special consideration when deciding how to transport data. The “Internet of Utilities” requires a utility-grade solution. The network required must have the reliability and connectivity necessary for this vital infrastructure, without having to share it. Wi-Fi spectrum, congested with families streaming the latest Marvel series on Netflix, or a cellular network clogged by selfies and tweets, isn’t good enough for vital infrastructure.
Instead, a separate radio network for a critical infrastructure must be part of the plan. It must use licensed spectrum, which is proven to support Mission Critical IoT. That way the spectrum is dedicated to connected utilities and avoids accidental interference – or deliberate jamming. If this happens, issues with licensed spectrum are more easily resolved because the regulator is legally required to fix it.
This is not a case of utilities data being unique. Police and other national emergency departments use dedicated licensed frequencies to guarantee transmission. The data from connected utilities can be just as important, carrying critical alarm notifications if something is wrong, or distribution automation, control and commands that can help guarantee the power network remains available.
Dedicated licensed spectrum for Mission Critical IoT has other advantages: the frequencies available can better penetrate buildings and have longer range, costs are easier to predict, as well as high transmission power and high signal-to-noise ratios means less infrastructure and fewer radio masts are needed.
Fundamentally, IoT as a concept does not cover all the different levels of security and the importance of data being transmitted by connected devices – smart meters and Fitbits are both ‘things’, but it’s undeniable one is more important than the other. It’s important to recognise the diverse requirements of connected devices – some data is of little importance and some is of critical importance – and as a result, allocate spectrum appropriately.