Broadband Will Offer Safe Communications for Utilities as They Face Future Threats
- May 6, 2020 6:28 pm GMT
“With Anterix broadband, a utility would detect and correct a line break in 1.4 seconds, before it hits the ground."
-- Morgan O'Brien, Chief Executive Officer, Anterix
By Llewellyn King
Gratitude to the electric utilities should be universal during the coronavirus pandemic. They have silently but purposefully kept the lights on. They have done their best to shield their workers while running the system and dealing with a dramatic reduction – 5.7 percent, according to the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) -- in demand.
National Grid President Badar Khan said in a webinar the utility had gone as far as housing staff in its facilities, putting up cots, dormitory style. Public service at its best.
Despite yeoman service in the current crisis, utilities are facing change on many fronts. They are under political and social pressure to abandon fossil fuels, even their reliance on natural gas; and President Donald Trump’s May 1 bulk power order will affect their supply chains, causing them to seek new heavy equipment suppliers.
EEI President Tom Kuhn said in an op-ed column marking Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, “I also believe lessons from this pandemic can help us come together to address another great challenge we face -- climate change.”
Kuhn pointed out, “Overall, emissions from the electric power sector are at their lowest level since 1987 and are down by a third … compared to 15 years ago,”
But emissions are not the whole picture.
Climate change that has already taken place is straining utilities with physical threats: hurricanes, tornadoes, and weather acting in aberrant ways. Wildfires initiated by wire breaks have driven the mighty Pacific Gas and Electric Company into bankruptcy.
Wildfires are more common everywhere. Australia has been devastated with the worst wildfires in its history. I just got word from friend in Ireland -- soggy Ireland – that there is “a ‘hosepipe ban’ – to conserve water -- and there are gorse fires all over the Wicklow mountains and in the West, just as the hills should typically be blazing with the beautiful yellow gorse.” Zimbabwe and Zambia have suffered a decade of electricity shortage because drought has starved the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River, which provides electricity to both countries.
Utilities are under sophisticated cyberattack by hostile state and non-state actors. A dire warning about the vulnerability of the nation’s infrastructures was delivered by The President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) late last year.
In a letter to the president, included in their Dec. 12, 2019 final report on transforming the U.S. cyberthreat partnership, NIAC members wrote, “Escalating cyber risk to America’s critical infrastructures present an existential threat to the continuity of government, economic stability, social order, and national security. U.S. companies find themselves on the front lines of a cyber war they are ill-equipped to win against nation-states intent on disrupting or destroying our critical infrastructure. Bold action is needed to prevent the dire consequences of a catastrophic cyberattack on energy, communication and financial infrastructure.”
The new challenges are producing new solutions for utilities which are offering services from drones surveilling power lines to more and more sophisticated cyber defenses.
As utilities build in more sensors, more defenses, they will need correspondingly advanced communications. But conventional communication systems, just as power grids, can be vulnerable to attack.
Morgan O’Brien, chief executive officer of Anterix, believes utilities need broadband communications systems (using LTE technology) which stand alone, independent of all extant communications systems, whether dependent on the internet or optical fibers. They need wireless networks which will survive a cyberattack, he says.
Anterix is one of the companies hoping to help utilities beef up their infrastructure and stave off blackouts, which could last weeks, according the NIAC. The company owes its can-do attitude to cellphone pioneer Nextel Communications, Inc. O’Brien was one of the co-founders of Nextel; Anterix Chairman Brian McAuley is the other. Much of the top talent at Anterix worked at Nextel, including President Robert Schwartz. The success of Nextel animates Anterix with an expectation of success.
Last month Ameren Corp., the largest electric utility in Missouri and the second largest in Illinois, signed a letter of intent with Anterix to lease 900 megahertz (MHz) broadband spectrum to deploy a private LTE network that will carry critical communications services. Bhavani Amirthalingam, Ameren senior vice president and chief information officer, said in the letter, “To enable the grid of the future the system requires a smarter, stronger and more secure communications network with far greater bandwidth. Ameren envisions a future where broadband plays a key role in the control and management of our network, providing enhanced communications with co-workers resulting in a better experience with our customers.”
Enter the Federal Communications Commission. In April, it released a draft of the long-awaited decision to create a broadband segment in the 900 MHz band targeted to serve the needs of utilities and other critical infrastructure and private entities. The proposed rules are scheduled to be adopted on May 13 when the commission holds its public meeting. Under these new rules, Anterix will be eligible to apply for the broadband license throughout much of the country and then lease the spectrum to utilities and others with a need for private broadband networks.
“The proposed rules balance the interests of those who desire broadband and those who wish to continue operating narrowband systems and require that any costs associated with moving incumbents out of the broadband segment to replacement narrowband channels are fully paid by the broadband licensee,” Anterix says.
The company is in discussion with a dozen utilities that have already recognized that their use cases, current and future, require a broadband platform, Schwartz says.
“It is a green light,” says O’Brien. “Utilities with their own broadband private networks will be able to funnel a huge amount of data and other communications without using any public network or the internet. It means that even if other networks were felled by a cyberattack, utilities could still manage their data and voice, and circumvent any attack on conventional communication.”
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS and SiriusXM Radio. His email is email@example.com.
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