Digitization and the integration of the Internet of Things (IoT) can be seen in many facets ranging from consumer mobile to industrial applications. While consumer data communications have flourished in establishing connectivity for mobile IoT technologies, industrial applications have faced significant security and reliability challenges.
The availability of low-cost, low-power sensors and edge-computing devices offers industrial operations, in general, and water and wastewater operations, specifically, increased efficiencies in the delivery and management of their services. However, efficiencies driven by increased remote monitoring and control also expose water systems to cyberattacks or hacks, which could affect delivery. As water and wastewater operations leverage new technologies, there will be an increased focus on using secure and reliable wireless networking technology.
Many existing consumer options for wireless connectivity have failed to meet the needs of industrial applications. Unlicensed wireless communications technologies have proven to be poorly designed for wide area field networks, and commercial cellular networks continue to prove their lapses in security and reliability for more critical applications that affect public health and safety such as water supply and disposal. Furthermore, commercial telecommunications service providers continue to abandon legacy copper-based networks in favor of fiber but with a focus on consumer connectivity to the home while neglecting remote industrial assets. This leaves operators asking themselves what they’ll have to sacrifice in order to establish connectivity — security, reliability or coverage?
To provide a feasible and actionable solution to the limitations of legacy wired and wireless communications networks, new industrial wireless standards like IEEE 802.16s have emerged and gained support from key industrial leaders. The IEEE 802.16s industrial wireless standard is now introduced for water operations and supported by companies that distribute SCADA management software such as AutomaTech in the northeast U.S. and CP Pacific along the Pacific Coast. 802.16s serves a broad range of industrial functions for electric utilities, oil and gas, homeland security and transportation. In fact, the standard serves any mission-critical entity focused on security, reliability and remote connectivity.
The limitations of existing wireless communications network options
Integration of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is critical to keep pace with today’s changing technological landscape; however, faster innovation does not necessarily mean the solutions are better. To leverage IoT technologies and meet the demands for wireless connectivity, some operators have turned to unlicensed Wi-Fi-based technologies and wireless commercial carriers. Unfortunately, with these options, industrial data requirements are unmet and, in many cases, take a backseat to consumer cellular needs.
Unlicensed radio networks, which can establish fast connectivity for water management teams, are essentially low-power radios that share a limited amount of frequency. Because they are low power and share frequency, they face interference from others and only provide limited range use, which is not beneficial for wide area, critical communications deployments. Industrial networks may require tens of thousands of square miles of coverage. Unlicensed networks are highly susceptible to security threats including hacker activity and purposeful jamming. They also use collision-based protocols, which make their data rates far less than the published throughput with poor quality of service (e.g., unpredictable latency).
The other option is to revert to what most are familiar with for consumer communications — commercial cellular data networks. These are a convenient choice because they are offered by brands already well-known for consumer mobile network use, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. Built to support consumer traffic demands, these networks often fail to deliver the critical security and reliability requirements of water management operations. Consumer cellular networks are purposefully designed for downstream traffic versus mission-critical networks that are focused on pulling back data from the edge network.
Over the last 10 years, the industry has seen communications compromised by a variety of man-made and natural disasters such as hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and cyberattacks that have taken down grid systems, transportation networks and more. These threats have the potential to render operations useless or unavailable with unpredictable restoration times. Additionally, decisions about the restoration of tower sites and network functionality are made by the network service provider, not the industrial facility. Restoration of connectivity and re-establishing remote operations are often completely out of the facility’s hands. The vulnerabilities to cyber threats leave water management operations exposed to a variety of security concerns including denial of service attacks on the carrier network and even targeted attacks on a specific management asset ranging from sensors to water-pumping stations to water quality monitoring.
Challenges with capacity are also an issue with consumer wireless communications networks in both upstream and downstream. Consumer cellular networks are purposely designed to limit upstream capacity and maximize downstream capacity for video and streaming downloads. Industrial networks are upstream-centric where data is pulled back to the operations centers.
A new standard for IIoT wireless communications — IEEE 802.16s
To address the security, capacity and reliability concerns that operators experience with unlicensed and commercial wireless networks, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) published a new standard for private, licensed wireless field area networks known as 802.16s. IEEE 802.16s was developed by a group of key industry leaders in the electric utility sector including the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Utilities Technology Council (UTC) and a group of major U.S. utility companies.
Originally designed to provide utilities with increased capacity from legacy narrowband wireless solutions, it is now leveraged across a wider range of industries, including for water management, utilities, municipalities and more. Because it was tested in the electric utility sector where persistent connectivity is required to provide constant power to its consumers, the standard meets some of the most stringent communications requirements, making it applicable for any critical industry.
The standard enables the use of any licensed radio frequency in the VHF or UHF bands provided. It offers flexibility in channel size and frequency, which has helped to create more spectrum and frequency band opportunities for industrial service providers to establish private, secure networks and managed network services that water management teams can use to manage remote assets. Unlike commercial 4G/LTE and emerging 5G networks, these closed-loop private network systems create a digital and physical separation from the public internet that keeps critical data communications on a separate network to ensure reliability and security. The radio frequencies for 802.16s are either available from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on a site license basis or can be purchased for exclusive use in the secondary frequency markets. With these managed network services, industrial network prioritization is ensured following a natural disaster, and security risks are minimized.
The recent completion of the new 802.16s standard and the availability of licensed radio frequencies that leverage the standard enable more secure and reliable remote wireless communications management of water operations.
Stewart Kantor is the CEO and a co-founder of Full Spectrum Inc., a wireless telecommunications company that designs, develops and manufactures private broadband wireless internet technology and provides network services 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.