Although the concept of IoT is just beginning to surface as a household phrase, the concept isn’t new. It has been around for many decades, in what I will term the “internet of things that matter,” things such as remote controlling compressors that deliver natural gas to New York City, analyzing pressures and flows on an oil pipeline in real time to detect even small leaks, inter-linking circuit breakers at various substations to react quickly to prevent a fault from escalating to a larger area and others.FCC Terminates MCLM Hearing, Misses CII Spectrum Opportunity
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Ironically, we now have the technology to tie virtually everything into the internet, but our toolset to properly serve the Internet of Things that Matter (IoTtM) is increasingly at risk. How could this be when the bandwidth it takes to remote just one person’s digital video recording (DVR) content to a cellphone is likely larger than a whole city’s worth of IoTtM?
I believe the key to understanding this dichotomy lies in understanding the cumulative impact of FCC policies dating back to the early 1990s where emphasis shifted in favor of consumers and away from business, industry, government and regulation. No one can deny there have been huge benefits from these policies, giving us the combined power of the internet and the cloud; yet, a few stress cracks are growing with respect to the IoTtM.
Telecommunications systems supporting the IoTtM within the energy industry, regardless of the technology deployed, are typically carefully monitored and attended to promptly when problems occur.
In the evolution of the telecommunications tools supporting the IoTtM, the broad categories haven’t changed — do-it-yourself wireless, commercial wireless, commercial landline services, satellite services and a do-it-yourself landline. However, the story behind these broad categories has changed a lot.
As long as the business model of commercial wireless remains linked in an 80/20 way with consumers over business and industrial customers, progress toward becoming an ideal strategic fit for supporting the IoTtM will be asymptotic at best. Here are some of the reasons why. Another generation (5G) doesn’t always mean better. Long Term Evolution (LTE) is delivering more average bandwidth per square mile, but there is still a cost to speed.
Claude Shannon would remind us that with higher speeds comes a need to maintain higher RF signal quality, which is doable at cell centers but still hard to maintain at cell edges. Consequently, towers still must be tweaked in favor of where people live and the roads they drive on. Engineering models continue to assume that the IoT is on a parallel track with people and roads, and such is often not the case with the IoTtM. Recent experience in some of our local oil field environments suggests service is degrading, not improving.
While most of the applications identified with the IoTtM require only modest bandwidth, they often require a steady, consistent flow of information, and in electric utility industry applications, very low latencies, as well. It is not hard to understand why maintaining steady information flow for customer data on commercial wireless networks is difficult. Consumers eat up bandwidth as fast as carriers can deliver it, and carriers are reluctant to deploy any quality of service (QoS) technology in the direction of offering a business/industrial class of service and agreeing to meaningful service-level agreements (SLAs).
Another systemic challenge with the strategic fit between commercial wireless and the IoTtM has to do with the pace of change. Consumers look toward the next generation with Christmas-morning anticipation. Business/industrial users often look at the next generation as, “Oh no, the stuff we just installed that we hoped to have quiet enjoyment with for 10 years will need to be replaced in three.”
Commercial Landline Services
Most people don’t realize that a significant portion of IoTtM applications ride legacy commercial wireline services provided by traditional wireline phone companies. While wireline services have historically been reliable, technological and market forces focused on the consumer, together with a somewhat unevenly regulated landscape, are creating a landscape that is less aligned with serving the needs of the IoTtM.
For example, much of the U.S. copper infrastructure and the equipment that uses copper infrastructure is aging and becoming increasingly expensive to repair. Meanwhile, local exchange carrier (LEC) economies of scale regarding the traditional uses of copper are dropping. Folks are turning in their landline phones for cellphones and trading in DSL modems for cable modems or wireless service. Concurrently, the trend to bundle TV, internet, and phone service is driving data speeds up to the point where copper infrastructure is only useful across a short range, resulting in network designs where fiber gets pulled to the neighborhood, and the old copper is used just for those last few feet to the home. This hybrid bandwidth upgrade approach works in urban and suburban settings but does not work in rural environments, where the preferred solution is new, expensive fiber all the way to the home or an end-point location.
In the fully regulated telecommunications world of the past, one might expect the LEC to pay the upgrade cost regardless of the return on investment, but in today’s environment where sporadic competition exists, where does that line of responsibility get drawn relative to a duty to provide service in exchange for being the franchised-dominant carrier? Expect this question to come up often with respect to servicing the IoTtM, as many of them are inexpensive to modernize and use in rural areas and sometimes require time division multiplexing (TDM) technologies, occasionally referred to as special access services, which most carriers are trying to get away from.
Another dimension of the competitive consumer-centric environment has to do with reliability. Competitive winners are those LECs, cable companies and wireless internet service providers (WISPs) that can snag customers without incurring much cost. Levels of service naturally drop to the lowest common denominator that consumers can tolerate, with service providers often choosing to skip things such as backup power for repeater locations. Unfortunately, the minimum level of service consumers tolerate is not always acceptable to support the IoTtM. Considering that consumer applications are the 80 of the 80/20 by volume, the IoTtM that underpins our nation’s critical infrastructure will not drive this reliability gap to a natural resolution.
Private Wireless Systems
Oil and gas, electric utilities, water/waste water and virtually all critical infrastructure industries (CII) have used private wireless systems successfully for years to underpin the automation of the things that matter, even before there was an internet. The core building blocks of this success have been licensed microwave and multiple address systems (MAS). Beginning in the early 1990s, the FCC realized the huge commercial value of spectrum and started breaking the old habit of granting exclusive licenses to private companies essentially free and started auctioning spectrum in huge chunks, both in bandwidth and in geographic areas to support the cellular industry. The FCC has been busy with auctions ever since, trying to keep up with the demand for commercial wireless spectrum and raking in lots of money for the U.S. Treasury.
At the same time, the FCC didn’t lose sight that spectrum is a resource that ideally belongs to everybody and realized that the creation of unlicensed allocations would foster vast amounts of innovation/commerce, ultimately benefiting consumers and businesses alike. This happened. During the same time, large chunks of spectrum were made available for unlicensed systems, with interference-free communications not guaranteed.
Being faced with no available licensed point-to-multipoint spectrum, CII cautiously waded in the waters of the unlicensed bands to support the IoTtM. Most experiences have been positive. Accordingly, CII use of the unlicensed bands has been ever expanding.
In creating the rules for the unlicensed bands, the FCC built in technical flexibility. This allowed for many uses and helped speed investment in the new bands. This flexibility also meant that probability for interference between noncompatible technologies was more likely when users of the noncompatible technologies end up operating in the same geographic area.
America is a big place. Much of the time this is not a problem. Yet, circumstances are now converging to cause the rate of problems in unlicensed bands to rise exponentially. An abrupt change has occurred in rural applications with WISPs using the unlicensed bands to deliver internet to rural homes in parallel with critical infrastructure systems, such as smart grid and oil and gas monitoring. These co-deployments have proven to be problematic both because of equipment incompatibilities and the sheer bandwidth the WISPs are consuming. As consumers draw more bandwidth, the WISPs draw more bandwidth and soon the band is used up in a particular area. A similar threat now exists in urban and suburban settings with wireless carrier use of LTE unlicensed (LTE-U) to offload customer traffic from cellular networks into the unlicensed bands. No one knows where this will go, but this type of unprecedented demand could threaten the use of Wi-Fi in homes and businesses alike.
As we look toward making a quantum leap in the number of IoT that are out there and possibly finding new spectrum to meet that need, it is time to ensure that we have the IoTtM covered first. Without solid telecommunications alternatives for the IoTtM, we risk building weakness into our nation’s critical infrastructure.
The shift has occurred. The momentum of the free market and technology is focused on solving consumers’ problems, not the needs of critical infrastructure and the IoTtM. This means the forces of nature are not moving to solve this problem. No one wants to go backwards to a more regulated telecommunications environment. The first step in improving the landscape in support of the IoTtM is a recognition that new alternatives that are not joined at the hip with consumers and maybe not even the public internet need to be developed.
F. H. (Rick) Smith is an IT infrastructure architect for Chevron. He has worked in the petroleum industry since 1976. Smith is a member of the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) telecommunications committee and serves on the Enterprise Wireless Alliance (EWA) board of directors. He is an editorial adviser to MissionCritical Communications. Email feedback to editor@RRMediaGroup.com.