Utility Direction for Smart Cities – Driving the Industry

At the most recent AWWA Management Conference in March 2019, a Smart Cities and Internet of Things Workshop was held. During this time, several Utility speakers provided information on how they were approaching smart cities along with the challenges that they faced. What stood out to me during this time was the number of different thoughts on what a smart city or smart utility constitutes, along with how hesitant the participants seemed to be towards implementation. Many of the general comments indicated that Utilities would prefer to let vendors drive the direction by providing devices that would fit their use cases. One final concern was related to internal IT capability to properly maintain all of these devices once they were deployed.

As I began to think more about this throughout the week, it troubled me that the Utilities and Municipalities seemed hesitant to push the vendors by presenting their use cases and / or demanding more open standards network capabilities to open up potential use case functionality. Utilities and Municipalities are in a unique position to avoid some of the failures of Automated Metering by ensuring their voices are heard while these products and solutions are being developed, and they should take complete advantage of this opportunity. In speaking with vendors, I believe they are in the opposite position of the customers and are awaiting more feedback to push development towards the most likely use cases. I believe we need to begin industry-level discussions now, to ensure the customers are being heard by the vendors and a dialogue is started before products are developed into a closed system and the vendor’s engineering resources are left to create functionality without direction.

A true Smart City or Smart Utility implementation will be difficult, and breaking down internal silos is essential to ensure all stakeholders are participating and a solid master plan can be created for direction. Management should create a steering committee internally made up of all stakeholders and provide the committee with the directives and goals to make the implementation successful across all operational groups. My concern for the ultimate future of Internet of Things and Smart Organizations is a ‘network for everything’, where we see one entity with a purpose-built network for every individual problem they’re trying to solve, without direction and participation from . This brings me to my last point, which is data ingestion. The most important part of a truly Smart Organization will be their ability to act on the data that is being received. As more devices and more networks are layered onto an organization, it will become harder for the silos to utilize data across the business units to make effective decisions; ultimately this will lead to the value of the ‘smart implementation’ never being fully realized.

What are your thoughts on Smart Cities / Utilities? What is your approach plan? Do you have data utilization plan once all of your devices are installed and reporting?

Utility Management in IT Security

At the the Mueller Mi.Net Conference (Mi.Conference), Mueller invited Anil Gosine, a cybersecurity expert, to discuss Internet of Things (IoT) concerns and general Utility IT shortfalls that are inherent to the industry. During his presentation, a few items of note came up regarding Utility Management and their ability to react to cybersecurity threats:

1.) In a 2016 survey, over 80% of Corporate Executives that responded stated they felt they could not understand a cybersecurity report and that their organizations were not prepared for a major attack (both security against and mitigation of effects)
2.) In the same survey, 40% of those respondents stated they were not concerned about their lack of understanding, as they felt they were not liable for the repercussions of hacking nor the responsibility of protecting customer data. Their defense seemed to be based on the fact that this should be IT responsibility

When thinking about this survey example, it made me wonder how concerned the Utility Managers are with cybersecurity, and how they feel their role is played regarding responsibility in the event of an attack. As we work with Utilities to help deploy Automated Metering Systems, I often see the responsibility for this Utility project be pushed off to IT due to being related to technology, however these systems are more about change across the entire Utility, which the IT group cannot effectively manage without support. With this comparison in mind, I’m curious how many Utility Managers would have a similar outlook to customer data protection and responsibility, even if they did not directly realize it until now.

Another troubling situation is the continued prevalence of IoT discussions related to Smart City and Smart Utility goals. As Utilities continue to expand these networks and add new devices, we are seeing more opportunities for edge computing (situations where the endpoint runs applications and performs calculations) and SCADA-like use cases. SCADA systems have always been ‘islanded’ for security reasons. Many of the devices for IoT have use and operational requirements that necessitate connection; the potential for direct device control by an attacker multiplies the data issues in the event of an attack and can pose larger consequences for the community. None of these concerns are new for the electric industry, but water and gas are continuing to evolve with their own complex application needs, and as these needs develop, the potential for malicious actors to turn their eyes toward these Utilities becomes much greater.

In closing, IT and cybersecurity questions for Utility Leadership:
1. Is our IT Team supported with clear enough directives to act decisively?
2. What can Utility Leadership do to improve our organization to be resilient in the face of attacks?
3. How do we change as an organization to handle the power and transformations coming from IoT and Smart Cities / Smart Utilities?

Does AMI Standardization Limit Innovation?

Over the past year, there has been an outcry within the metering industry for standardized AMI. This effort is being pushed in the electric and water industries, with the hopes that buying one manufacturer’s system would not tie an organization down to that manufacturer’s meter, transmitter, or collector. While there is the possibility of opening the market, if a standard exists that everyone follows, where is the need for innovation and outside of the box thinking? Similarly, do the standards inhibit this innovation at a technical level as well? Certainly it can be argued that a standard can cause the technical approach to be stifled based on the restrictions of the approach itself.

During the IFAT conference in Munich, Germany I was exposed to the M-bus (Meter Bus) standard created for the purpose of standardizing a meter communications protocol. This protocol supports both wired and wireless specifications (more on wireless later) that define how a meter should communicate. M-bus was originally created to provide an easy means for retrieving readings for heating and cooling meters in an apartment complex. These radiator service meters are prevalent outside of the US market where central HVAC is not common. To simplify the reading of these meters, the wired M-bus standard calls for a gateway device that is wired in a circuit to each meter in the building; from there the gateway provides TCP/IP communication to any computer. The total baud rate for this circuit is 9.6 Kbps (that’s kilobits per second).

Wireless M-bus has since become an option. This allows for data transmission over the M-bus protocol through any wireless network. Obviously the options are greatly expanded and allow M-bus to utilize 802.11 and LORA, but you’re limited to a 115.2 Kbps baud with this version of the protocol. You must also use a wireless M-bus gateway that has no repeating capability as the standard calls for meter to collector to head end only. This means that no collector to collector and no meter to meter communication can be utilized to retrieve messages using M-bus protocol, according to the standard definitions.

Now let’s compare the M-bus protocol to a cellular AMI solution using CDMA 1x (or EV-DO). These solutions could potentially be at minimum 153.2 Kbps baud, but peak at over 3Mbps and allow for two way communications. To be fair, that is a cellular network managed by a for-profit company, so let’s compare to a solution utilizing the ISM band. The ISM band is the open license band between 902 and 928 MHz. Many US AMI vendors utilize this band for their networks. This band offers about 128Kbps on the low end and around 6Mbps on the upper end, but would be restricted by the vendor’s specific protocol, typically around 200 kbps baud. The third solution is a licensed network solution, which can offer around 16KBps (that’s bytes per second) baud on average; comparing that to the cellular solution, that comes out to about .128 of the cellular total data but still 13 kbps better than maximum bandwidth on the M-bus protocol. See image below.

So why does any of this matter? If M-bus can utilize LORA for wireless transmission, the network isn’t a major factor; rather the protocol is limiting the max transmission speed. Several manufacturers have moved back to licensed networks after utilizing ISM for many years; a couple have moved to LORA. If the manufacturer has the option to build a non-standard protocol within the confines of their own network, they are able to expand and innovate on that without issue. If a manufacturer is limited to one protocol with limitations to allow for homogenization, what opportunity is there for innovation?

In closing, I believe with the exception of adoption of TCP/IP (currently used in computer networks) as the protocol, standardization only limits what can be done on a metering network and slows the ability for a vendor to innovate if they have to report back to a consortium for a standard. While others want standardization, I believe it is better for all to allow non-standard competition.

Do you think the U.S. should standardize it’s AMI market?