February 25, 2019

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Expanded Access to 6 GHz Band Threatens Electricity Reliability, White Paper Concludes

Electric utilities’ and other critical infrastructure industries’ use of mission-critical communications systems could be compromised if a federal proposal to open access to an already crowded spectrum band proceeds as planned, a new paper commissioned by UTC concludes.

According to the paper, “Spectrum and Utility Communications Networks: How Interference Threatens Reliability” by Red Rose Tele.com, interference in the 6 GHz spectrum band could have profound negative impacts on the reliability and integrity of utility communications systems.

“While opening access to licensed 6 GHz bands may appear an attractive approach to improving spectrum availability to unlicensed entrants, there is a considerable risk to critical infrastructure relying on the integrity of the spectrum as it exists today,” the paper concludes.

At issue is a Federal Communications Commission (FCC, the Commission) proposal to open the 6 GHz spectrum band to unlicensed commercial use (Industry Intelligence, Oct. 29, 2018). The FCC proposes to use an “automated frequency coordination system,” (AFC) which some proponents of the concept say will prevent interference. However, details on how the AFC would function are limited and it otherwise appears to be immature in its development, thus leaving utilities uncertain about the effectiveness, as well as the potential of cyber security vulnerabilities. UTC joined a coalition of electric and water utilities, along with the oil and natural gas industry, in opposition to the plan (Industry Intelligence, Feb. 19, 2019).

The UTC-commissioned white paper, which was filed along with the comments to the FCC, provides an overview into how electric utilities use communications networks, with a specific focus on the 6 GHz band. Utility communications networks are critical for situational awareness and underpin a utility’s ability to deliver reliable and resilient service.

“The utility telecommunications network backbone is typically a combination of fiber optics and microwave point-to-point transport technologies that aggregate and transport all critical utility applications used to manage and control the grid,” the paper says. “This includes the highly critical transmission-system protection requiring the detection of fault disturbances within milliseconds that, if compromised due to communications interference, could result in system instability, substation transformer damage with the potential for blackouts as well as federal regulatory violations. This is the crux of the necessity for extreme levels of availability within utility telecom systems.”

Utilities deploy mission-critical communications in the 6 GHz band through microwave, fixed, point-to-point systems. A microwave system refers to signals being sent wirelessly antennae to antennae, over distances up to 50 miles or more.

Specifically, utilities use the 6 GHz band for numerous applications, but the two most critical functions: Supervisory and Control Data Acquisition (SCADA) communications and teleprotection. SCADA systems send information from substation or field locations to utility control rooms, providing real-time situational awareness of power flow within the grid. Teleprotection refers to a system of relays connected to both ends of a transmission line that monitor the health of the transmission span between the relays. Due to the extreme voltages transmission lines operate, it is imperative to monitor for faults and clear them nearly instantaneously.

Any interference disrupting these signals could threaten a utility’s ability to send and receive this crucial information, the paper says. Microwave networks are built to extreme design criteria and precision, and anything disruption this network could have profound implications, the paper concludes.

“With the introduction of unlicensed devices given access to 6 GHz spectrum transmitting in proximity to the path, a squelching to the available fade margin could occur, resulting in loss of signal and, likely, communications across the link,” the paper says. “Given the mobile nature of these devices, it will be nearly impossible to track down the offending device(s) resulting in unacceptable periodic drops in link availability.”

Additionally, “depending on how the interference is manifested, it could result in the path going into a ‘flapping state’ where it is transient, up and down with a rapid period, too fast for the routing electronics to stabilize and thus could place the network in an indeterministic state resulting in a complete network failure,” the paper concludes. “The network is designed to react to a hard fault, enabling the system to reroute and stabilize traffic on the protected path. In the event of a network failure caused by ‘flapping,’ all network traffic stops and control center operators will lose visibility and control of the grid as well as all other application services until communications are restored.”

T&T Spotlight: Smart Systems for Smarter Communities Symposium

[Editor’s Note: Over the next few months, we will highlight sessions at the upcoming Telecom & Technology conference. Registration information is here!]

The Smart Systems for Smarter Communities Symposium, at UTC’s Telecom & Technology conference, is presented by the IT/OT Committee and sponsored by Black & Veatch. This symposium will explore how utilities can help shape, influence and create smarter communities.

The symposium features three smart community use cases:

  • Connected Communities: How utilities’ existing infrastructure can enable smart communities
  • Decentralization: Empowering utilities’ role in microgrids and self-generation
  • Utility Data: How utilities can benefit from a data-driven smart community

Each of the three use cases will have a one-hour presentation that includes an overview of the topic, technology demonstrations, and a lively Q&A. The presentations will be offered twice each at a special area on the Expo Hall floor.

The purpose of the symposium is to dive deeper into utility participation in smart communities. The content presented for each use case is meant to encourage discussion among utility and technology partner attendees: how they can together lead and serve smart communities well into the future. Utilities have much to offer to smart communities. And smart communities have much to offer to utilities.

All UTC members are invited to participate in Smart Systems for Smarter Communities – to help develop content for the three use cases, and to demonstrate hardware or software that can support any of those use cases.

If you are interested to participate in Smart Systems for Smarter Communities, please contact us via email or phone: +1.202.833.6811.

Skepticism Abounds as Draft FCC Report Cites Rural Broadband Gains

Although a draft Federal Communications Commission (FCC, the Commission) report states that the digital divide between Americans with and without access to modern broadband networks has narrowed, skepticism of these claims exists within and outside the agency.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai circulated the draft report to his fellow commissioners and will likely be voted on over the next few weeks, the Commission said in a press release. The draft 2019 Broadband Deployment Report was not made public at press time (Thursday, Feb. 21).

“For the past two years, closing the digital divide has been the FCC’s top priority,” Chairman Pai said. “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund. This report shows that our approach is working. But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”

Several electric cooperatives were among the winners of the Connect America Fund Phase II auction last summer (Industry Intelligence, Sept. 10, 2018).

The Chairman’s draft of the annual FCC report to Congress shows that since last year’s report, the number of Americans lacking access to a fixed broadband connection meeting the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps has dropped by over 25%, from 26.1 million Americans at the end of 2016 to 19.4 million at the end of 2017. Moreover, the majority of those gaining access to such high-speed connections, approximately 5.6 million, live in rural America, where broadband deployment has traditionally lagged.

Other key findings of the report include the following, based on data through the end of 2017:

  • The number of Americans with access to 100 Mbps/10Mpbs fixed broadband increased by nearly 20%, from 244.3 million to 290.9 million.
  • The number of Americans with access to 250 Mbps/50 Mbps fixed broadband grew by over 45%, to 205.2 million, and the number of rural Americans with access to such service more than doubled.

Based on these and other data, the report concludes that advanced telecommunications services – broadband – is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.

This conclusion, however, is up for debate. Many organizations, including UTC, have urged the Commission to use a higher broadband speed benchmark of at least 50 Mpbs or higher, as the 25 Mbps the agency uses is inadequate. Additionally, for latency, UTC has encouraged the Commission to use 100 milliseconds, which is necessary to support technologies like Voice-over-Internet-Protocol.

Additionally, one of the FCC’s own commissioners questioned its findings as well. In a tweet posted after the FCC issued a press release about the report, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the report does not paint a complete picture.

“The @FCC just shared with me a draft report on the state of broadband. It concludes that across the country broadband deployment is reasonable and timely,” she wrote. “I beg to differ. Millions of households — in rural and urban communities — have no access to high-speed service. That’s a fact.”

Please contact the UTC Public Policy Team with any questions.

Industry-Government Partnerships Key to Shoring Up Energy Security, Senate Committee Told

While more work may be needed to shore up the cybersecurity of the nation’s natural gas pipeline infrastructure, the industry and its federal partners are stepping up nonetheless, a key regulator told a Senate committee earlier this month.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC, the Commission) Chairman Neil Chatterjee, in response to questions from members from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he is pleased with the level of attention the industry is giving to pipeline security issues.

“In the past year… I have been impressed by the response I’ve seen from both industry and [the Transportation Security Administration],” Chairman Chatterjee said. “The industry has really taken ownership of this and taken steps to demonstrate their seriousness in investing in security.”

Chairman Chatterjee was one of five witnesses testifying at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Feb. 14 hearing on the status and outlook for cybersecurity efforts in the energy industry.

The hearing focused on steps both the industry and government have taken to address cybersecurity over the last few years, particularly since the Department of Energy’s (DOE) new Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) was launched last year.

“We know that the threat of cyberattacks by our foreign adversaries and other sophisticated entities is real and growing,” said Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) in her opening remarks. “Last month’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment detailed how China, Russia and other foreign adversaries are using cyber operations to target our military and our critical infrastructure. The assessment notes that our electric grid and natural gas pipelines are particularly vulnerable to attack and that Russia is mapping our infrastructure with the long-term goal of causing substantial damage.”

Both Chairman Murkowski and Chairman Chatterjee pointed to the upcoming FERC-DOE technical conference on current and emerging cyber and physical threats as an important development as it demonstrates how federal agencies can work together on these issues.

The importance of agencies working together is exemplified by the natural gas pipeline industry, which is regulated at some level by FERC, TSA, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Getting these agencies, along with the industry, on the same page regarding cybersecurity is critical going forward, senators and panelists said.

“I recently met with TSA Administrator David Pekoske to discuss pipeline cybersecurity and was impressed by his focus on this vital issue as well as his pledge to taking further action to improve TSA’s oversight of pipeline security,” Chairman Chatterjee said. “While I think both industry and government have made significant strides toward addressing this issue, I believe more work still needs to be done, and the Commission stands ready to assist in these efforts.”

Please contact the UTC Public Policy Division with any questions.

Upcoming Events

A snapshot of upcoming UTC webinars, events, and conference calls

  • Feb. 28: UTC Training Webinar—Let UTC Help with Your Wireless Regulatory Needs; For more information, contact Klaus Bender
  • March 12: UtiliSite Call; For more information, contact Bob Lockhart
  • March 19: Utilities Broadband Committee Call; For more information, contact Brett Kilbourne
  • March 15: Security, Risk, and Compliance Committee Webinar; For more information, contact Sharla Artz
  • March 20: IT/OT Committee Call; For more information, contact Bob Lockhart
  • March 21: Telecom Committee Call; For more information, contact Brett Kilbourne
  • March 21: Public Policy Division Call; For more information, contact Sharla Artz
  • Feb. 28: UTC Region 7
  • March 6-8: UTC Region 3
  • March 25-27: UTC Mid-Central