According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, through 2018, electric utilities have deployed about 86.8 million AMI meters. With a greater emphasis on the Internet of Things and connected homes, analysts expect the number of connected devices within the average utility to grow by an order of magnitude and the volume of data available from each connected device will also climb.
The growing aspiration for smart cities and connected communities may bring new benefits to utilities like more effective, data-driven decision-making, and enhanced engagement with customers, but it also opens this critical infrastructure up to vulnerabilities from previously unconnected systems, like EV charging, smart HVAC, or lighting. NERC CIP regulations are compliance-based and focused on generation and transmission-level power network assets, leaving room for serious vulnerabilities in the distribution grid. The National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) report on “Securing Cyber Assets: Addressing Urgent Cyber Threats to Critical Infrastructure” recommends establishing separate, secure communications networks specifically designed for the most critical cyber networks.
Unlicensed spectrum options exist and may have intrigued utilities, but for the nation’s critical infrastructure operations, utilities must continue stringent standards on security, reliability, and resilience and demand a deployment model not offered by public commercial networks. The need for priority access during critical operations dictates that utilities will be best served with a private network model where spectrum, technology and operations are under the control of the utilities. The exponential growth and challenges that lie ahead for electric utilities cannot be addressed adequately with public, unlicensed or legacy networks. The risk of interference and increased security threats related to these will grow with the increase in number of devices connected to these networks. Relying on leased public networks does not provide the utility with the right level of reliability and resiliency to effectively deploy these advanced systems. Response time to unplanned network outages can be days with public commercial networks as compared to hours with private LTE networks. Installing a private network allows utilities to make capital investments on their own infrastructure and reduce the heavy operational expenses due to the leased services. Electric utilities must demand more robust, interoperable, secure and pervasive telecom networking capabilities that they can control and command.