So the stimulus program had two major initiatives that seemed separate but really should have been put together. Smart Grid and Broadband Internet.
Smart grid technology is supposed to help us better manage the power systems and keep closer tabs and the usage patterns by the consumers of the energy. This is good because if we can better understand the real electricity usage patterns, we can make the best use of the existing power grid system and eventually use less energy. Wireless automated meter reading systems are a part of the smart grid concepts. A big benefit for the consumer is the ability to have actual metered use reports every month or on demand if desired for more real time monitoring. The utility company benefits because they don’t have to have all the manual meter reader employees and the fleets of vehicles. Remote controlled meters and devices at the consumer locations can help avoid rolling blackouts in high demand areas. If a neighborhood is hitting peak demand, less critical circuits can be shut down for short periods of time to bring the total demand for electricity down. A consumer would not notice their water heater being shut down for 15 to 30 minutes and would certainly prefer that to an actual blackout. Reducing peak demand also reduces the need to build more power grid systems that people hate to see come through their neighborhood. For those who live on Rural Electric Co-Op systems, this can also help keep their monthly bills down. Co-Ops buy power based on peak demand per quarter. The rate they pay for electricity is based on the single highest spike in demand, even if it is for a minute or two. If the Co-Op can remotely turn off devices to keep that spike down, everyone benefits with their bills because they pay the lowest possible prices for the wholesale electricity.
So what does that have to do with Fixed Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP’s)? Well the general designs I have seen for smart grid systems try to sell the need for super high speed data circuits to accomplish these goals. In reality these smart systems could work very effectively over dial up speeds. Now there is some need for video feeds in places like power substations, but they don’t need that amount of data capacity to every home. I see most smart grid systems being overbuilt with excess data delivery capacity. Why? Because the utility companies don’t know any better in my estimation. They are listening to the smart grid equipment manufacturers, who want nothing more than to sell a boatload of expensive equipment to an organization who has plenty of money and can amortize the investment over 10 or 15 years. The big problem is the manufacturers are deploying these systems in the unlicensed radio spectrum that these WISP’s are also using for high speed fixed wireless internet services, to provide internet service to areas that are unserved by cable or DSL.
These channels or radio spectrum are fair game for use by smart grid systems as much as they are for WISP’s. The FCC rules clearly state this. The problems are really more of a practical matter. Smart grid is deployed, from a spectrum management standpoint, in a very inefficient manor which has little to no consideration for other users of this spectrum. There are stories of utilities deploying new smart meter systems and totally taking WISP’s off the air. An action that leaves them unable to service their existing customers. This has happened over huge geographical areas. For the WISP’s, it is very frustrating because they know ways to mitigate these types of problems and let both systems coexist. The mammoth utility companies take their monopolistic and eminent domain type mentality, and care less about these small business operators, or the consumers that use this as their only access to high speed internet services. All for data needs that are less than a 10th of the capacity they build these smart grid systems for.
The solution to these problems is really quite simple. Smart grid operators could create partnerships with Fixed Wireless Internet Service Providers. This could serve multiple uses. WISP’s would like easier access to utility rights of way, skills, equipment and construction knowledge, to run fiber and high capacity data backhaul networks to locations where they can deploy wireless base stations. These in turn service last mile high speed internet connections to the end users. The same end users where the smart grid operators need to install devices like smart meters. The smart grid needs could easily be combined with the consumer broadband internet connections. Data protocols exist to keep the grid data separate from the internet use. This would maximize the use of the wireless spectrum for all interested parties. Bringing in the WISP’s would also alleviate the need for the utility company to either contract or train staff in the operations of these wireless networks. That could be left up to the WISP’s. Arrangements could be as simple as the Utility company maintaining access to a certain percentage of the data capacity at the customer locations in exchange for pole and easement access. WISP’s have discovered ways to deliver these types of services for pennies on the dollar as compared to the prices utility companies are paying for smart meter and smart grid systems.
Smart grid technology has some people extremely scared of connecting important infrastructure to the internet. Fears of hacking and cyber attacks are well founded. While many would make the argument that smart grid should not be combined with consumer internet connections, I don’t buy that. There are plenty of good computer security experts who can design safeguards in to these types of systems. If the utilities are so concerned with security in the first place, why are they deploying these systems in the unlicensed consumer grade radio spectrum!? It’s ironic that the utility industry has access to licensed spectrum that could serve their data purposes, but they refuse to implement that. The biggest reason is that the smart grid equipment manufacturers have taken the easy way out in their equipment design and built them the most generic way possible, using the consumer grade radio channels. This same generic design could be the security pitfall that is feared. There are major equipment players with a lot at stake who would prefer utility executives, who make these purchasing decisions, not to become educated on these issues. While they may claim they have good security in place with their systems, they are still vulnerable to simple interference problems and/or attacks. With a plethora of off the shelf consumer devices operating in that same frequency space, it would not take much effort to bring down these systems by simply interfering with the signals using devices available for under $100, enough to render the system ineffective.
Just because a system is expensive and comes from a well known company, that does not make it a good overall design……… Spectrum sharing, cooperation and planning would do well for all. It would also help get broadband internet to these unserved areas. Wireless is the cheapest way to do that, and if it was with the cooperation of the local utility companies, it would be even cheaper.
Bottom line is, there is no real need to build separate data networks just to satisfy smart grid needs, and the utility companies don’t need to get in to the Internet Service Provider (ISP) business. Most of them discovered that fact when examining Broadband over Power Line (BPL) systems. It was not their core business. It’s time to think outside the box and maximize this wireless spectrum for all to use.