No reasonable person would question the fact that we are entering a phase of explosive growth in consumer, commercial and industrial automation. Many of these applications have been rebranded under the popular catchphrase the Internet of Things, or IoT. However, for the nation's critical infrastructure assets and the agencies responsible for them, the wide-scale implementation of the IoT isn't straightforward.
Federal agencies including the Energy, Interior and Homeland Security departments, among others, have relied on data communications for remote monitoring and control long before the most advanced corporate enterprises adopted distributed data communications. However, the readily available public broadband wireless and wired IP networks, commonly used for today's corporate and consumer data communications, introduces substantial risks to the operation of mission critical networks. Some of these risks are so substantial that adoption of the technology may not be feasible, especially if the public networks lack sufficient security and quality of service. In recent years, new radio technologies have emerged that enable deployment of cost-effective, scalable, secure, private wireless Internet with minimal infrastructure, capable of leveraging the government's existing infrastructure and previously allocated spectrum to create a completely private IoT.
In the late 1960s, mission-critical industries including utilities and government agencies introduced a new data communications protocol know as Supervisory Control, Data Acquisition, and Automatic Generation Control. SCADA was originally designed to help utilities and the Department of Energy remotely monitor and control key elements of the electric grid, and today it continues to be the primary data communications protocol for the management of industrial and mission-critical networks worldwide.
SCADA systems were initially implemented over highly reliable, circuit switch leased phone lines supplied by the Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier. Today, SCADA systems continue to be the lifeblood of most industrial networks around the world, yet still depend on secure and reliable physical connections to be truly effective. Unfortunately, the legacy landline networks have deteriorated with no viable substitute of similar quality and security. As a result, many governmental agencies are left with a difficult choice of using either less secure, less reliable alternatives, or no reasonable replacement at all. For Energy and other key federal agencies, this has created an enormous problem.
Prior to deploying SCADA networks, utilities and governmental agencies in the U.S. had already deployed mobile wireless voice systems known as Private Land Mobile Radio. PLMR networks are owned, operated and maintained by their users for day-to-day operations such as troubleshooting and maintaining critical infrastructure. These systems use small slices of VHF and UHF frequencies, and are capable of transmitting voice communications over very long range with minimal infrastructure. In addition, PMLR systems are designed and operated in a similar fashion to commercial cellular networks except these networks are exclusively used by the government agency or shared across several agencies. Even with the introduction and evolution of commercial cellular voice and data communications, government entities have continued to operate, maintain and upgrade their PLMR systems at a great expense.
The continued use of PLMR networks is due to legitimate concerns about the reliability and availability of commercial cellular networks during manmade and natural disasters. Commercial wireless operators have chosen to provide only a minimal amount of backup power at their tower sites and that makes them unreliable in a crisis. In fact, in 2008, after a series of natural disasters and prolonged network failures, including outages during Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Communications Commission proposed an 8-hour minimum of backup power at all cellular tower sites. However, the carriers fought the legislation and successfully blocked it. The typical federal PLMR system, on the other hand, has several weeks of backup generator power in preparation for these types of severe occurrences.
The limitations of cellular systems also involve a host of security and service quality issues related to their fundamental design. For example, commercial wireless systems are designed and deployed with the assumption that only a small portion of subscribers are using the network at any one time for voice and data communications. This concept is referred to as oversubscription and it is a fundamental design flaw for mission critical voice and data networks that need to be available with the same quality at all times. For federal agencies responsible for maintaining critical infrastructure, relying on public cellular systems introduces substantial risk.
The government's PLMR infrastructure is now emerging as a perfect jump-off point for the implementation a private IoT, eliminating the gap created by the decay of the landline network and the security and quality of service issues posed by broadband commercial wired and wireless networks. New software-defined radio technology using 4th generation wireless standards similar to LTE systems. These radios can operate in exclusive licensed VHF and UHF frequencies, and enable government agencies to leverage existing PLMR tower and backhaul infrastructure to implement a completely secure and scalable private IoT.
Moreover, this technology can be used on existing federal spectrum already reserved for federal users by National Telecommunications and Information Administration. These new private IoTs are designed in a similar fashion to PLMR networks but are completely independent of the public Internet, eliminating external security threats including the potentially devastating impact of a distributed denial-of-service attacks. These innovations in radio technology are occurring at an ideal time as federal agencies contemplate a major expansion of their data networks.
Stewart Kantor is the CEO and a co-founder of Full Spectrum Inc, a wireless telecommunications company that designs, develops and manufactures FullMAX, its private broadband wireless internet technology 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. Since 2004, Mr. Kantor has focused exclusively on the development of private wireless data network technology for mission-critical industries including electric utilities, oil and gas companies and the transportation industries.