Leveraging MC-IoT Networks to Maintain Power Grids During Natural Disasters

Through advances in private networking and the new IEEE 802.16s standard for MC-IoT, utilities are creating resilient smart grids that can endure natural disasters.

Kathleen Nelson
Image of a hurricane approaching the southeastern United States

2017 was a year that left our nation’s infrastructure vulnerable to a number of threats including wildfires, earthquakes, and most prominently, hurricanes. The hyperactive 2017 hurricane season, which featured the devastating trio of superstorms—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—was the costliest caught on record, totaling at least $200 billion (USD) in total damages according to National Geographic.

The United States’ municipalities and utilities that are in high-risk areas often face a number of natural disasters. When catastrophe repeatedly strikes or reaches regions that aren’t as prepared, however, it can result in widespread damage to mission-critical communication systems. Proven advances in private network technologies paired with the emergence of new network standards for the Mission-Critical Internet of Things (“MC-IoT”) are helping utilities create more resilient communications for the power grid, even in the wake of these natural disasters.

What MC-IoT Means to the Nation’s Infrastructure

As utilities continue to automate the power transmission and distribution grid, they’re deploying the subfield of IoT that is MC-IoT in order to modernize the electric grid, which requires wireless connectivity for edge devices. Through MC-IoT systems, utilities are connecting these intelligent devices which include motor operated switches, synchrophasors, voltage regulators, capacitor bank controllers, reclosers, fault circuit indicators, and meters on their networks to allow for increased real-time situational awareness and security. As MC-IoT continues to be deployed for the growing industrial internet, utilities require more from their communications networks. New networks are required where they weren’t needed in the past.

Utilities have had mobile wireless voice systems known as Private Land Mobile Radio and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems on the transmission grid. However, while SCADA systems set the groundwork for the creation of private-utility owned networks, SCADA infrastructure can’t support the data communications required for grid modernization and increasing security requirements. That’s where MC-IoT comes into play.

Public cellular network providers cannot meet the reliability and latency requirements needed by the electric power grid. Moreover, rural electric companies may not have access to reliable commercial cellular networks. Commercial cellular networks were built specifically to consumer requirements. When a natural disaster compromises the network, those commercial networks don’t meet the reliability required for restoring the electric grid. Additionally, most commercial cellular carriers won’t prioritize mission-critical traffic over their consumer-grade traffic, which means that mission-critical electric utility data needs to have a private, dedicated communications network: an MC-IoT network.

These public networks also involve a multitude of security and service quality concerns related to the underlying design of commercial systems. Commercial wireless systems are designed and deployed with the assumption that only a select portion of subscribers are using the network at any given time for voice and data communications, a practice that carriers refer to as “oversubscription.”

Oversubscription is a major flaw for mission-critical voice and data network communications. MC-IoT systems need to be available with the same quality at all times, especially during natural disasters, which is when most commercial wireless networks fail.

Securing Mission-Critical Networks During Natural Disasters

Having a secure, reliable network is key in ensuring connectivity during natural disasters and their aftermath. By creating a utility-owned network, these entities can maintain control in the wake of these disasters and restore power more quickly without being at the mercy of the consumer cellular network providers. It’s also important to note that commercial wireless networks require electricity to operate during a disaster when the power grid needs to be restored. Electricity may not be available and the battery backup that cellular providers rely on only provides back up for four to eight hours. How could a powered down commercial cellular network allow power utilities to restore the grid? The problem is clear.

Over the last two years, Utilities Technology Council (UTC), Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the WiMAX Forum, Ondas Networks (formerly Full Spectrum), and leading US electric utilities worked with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to develop a new mission-critical, narrower channel wireless Industrial Internet standard. The new worldwide standard, IEEE 802.16s, came to fruition in October 2017. Other wireless standards require larger channel sizes (1.25 MHz for WiMAX and 1.4 MHz for LTE), to which utilities and other mission-critical industries don’t have access. Prior to IEEE 802.16s, utilities and other mission-critical entities were locked into proprietary solutions.

How Private Networks Benefit from the IEEE 802.16s Standard

While proprietary solutions can provide private wireless networks that meet the high reliability and low latency requirements of mission-critical entities, such solutions put those entities at risk because of the possibility of a manufacturer going out of business or discontinuing a product. The IoT market moves quickly. It isn’t uncommon for manufacturers of proprietary solutions to go out of business, leaving the utility without a supported communications network. That can result in high costs for total system replacements and a high probability of equipment failures without a way to replace the equipment except for a complete rebuild.

Networks that are built to the IEEE 802.16s standard provide a secure connectivity point for MC-IoT technologies used to monitor and control operations. Such standardized networks are highly secure, application agnostic (Layer 2), and low latency. They’re able to create a variety of quality of service levels to prioritize different kinds of data traffic at the device and application layers respectively. 802.16s-compliant networks allow utilities and other mission-critical entities to customize their networks based on their individual needs—a vital benefit when reinforcing a network to withstand natural disasters.

The incorporation of MC-IoT and private wireless networks unveils a new model for industrial applications. Leveraging these new networks is helping stakeholders manifest the goal of a secure, ongoing, multi-vendor eco-system across the globe’s critical infrastructure end markets. As the utilities and mission-critical sectors increasingly adopt standards-based solutions, it becomes all the more crucial for utilities throughout the nation to lay their infrastructure upon a bedrock of enduring, standardized MC-IoT technology.

Kathleen Nelson
Kathleen Nelson
Kathy Nelson worked at Great River Energy as a telecommunications engineer for nearly 25 years and recently served as UTC’s Board Chair. Ms. Nelson is currently employed by Ondas Networks (formerly Full Spectrum), a wireless networking company tha...
Kathy Nelson worked at Great River Energy as a telecommunications engineer for nearly 25 years and recently served as UTC’s Board Chair. Ms. Nelson is currently employed by Ondas Networks (formerly Full Spectrum), a wireless networking company tha...