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Internet of things (image via en.wikipedia.org).

With cyber-attacks on the increase, utility providers and consumers are turning to private wireless networks to mitigate risks, writes Paul McNeil.

THE USE of private wireless networks to provide for utilities and other aspects of critical industries have become more important than ever before, as the need for a medium to defend in the face of cyber-attacks escalates.

Recent large scale hacks have raised new awareness regarding possible cyber-attacks that have the potential of stalling operations and even bringing down small and large portions of the electric grid in the United States and elsewhere.

The intensity

The already massive electric grid established in the U.S. includes around 55,000 transmission substations, more than 1,033,000 kilometres of electrical lines delivering high-voltage power and a whopping 10.1 million kilometres of electrical lines distributing power to the consumers.

Considering the new and innovative introduction of distributed energy resources such as solar and wind energy, this colossal grid is undergoing an overhaul the size of a revolution. It is obvious that utilities desperately need to escalate the number of control points across the vast land of the U.S., in order to be able to impose and maintain complete control over such new resources and respond to the electricity demand of 315 million Americans.

Here is where the use of the Internet of Things technology comes into play, along with the parallel necessity to minimise any security vulnerability that comes with the automation and interconnectivity of anything and everything, these days.

Various attacks

The electrical grid in the U.S. will eventually evolve into one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated physical cyber systems, as explained by experts. As always, there are the pros and cons with such a transformation — delivering risks and opportunities to enhance the efficiency of energy and grid robustness, while making the entire system vulnerable in the face of hackers infiltrating and carrying out dangerous cyber-attacks.

Moreover, recent cyber-attacks targeting the networks of New York’s Bowman Avenue Dam and the entire power grid of Ukraine was the scene of hackers being able to enter and take control of such sensitive management systems. This highlighted the necessity to impose enhanced security measures and protection beyond standard measures of firewall security. This technology has time and again proven unable to rise to such a challenge.

The public aspect

Public wireless networks are not suitable grounds for utilities to rely on to communicate their data, due to the very reason of reliability and security vulnerabilities. New advances in technology are providing the means for utility to establish a private Internet, if you will, in order to place millions of assets under managed control without connecting to the public internet network for a second.

The need to establish contact with public networks are eliminated through the creation of a completely private network through the use of licensed spectrum, all utility exclusive. This also provides the ability to impose means of non-routable IP addressing through the use of closed loop monitoring and control. This method also provides the ability for utilities to gain control over system up-time, user access and mean time to repair (MTR). These are all factors that are considered beyond control if based on a public network.

Various parties involved

Various associations involved in utility and engineering activities, including the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), alongside industry leading utilities including Great River Energy, Idaho Power, Pepco and Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, amongst many others, have thrown their weight behind a new global IEEE standard dubbed the "802.16s". This system makes possible the ability to use private networks for operational security and reliability, over licensed spectrum. There is an ongoing standardisation process, including contributing key intellectual property.

According to Darktrace, a known private security firm working with the UK railway network, the sensitive infrastructure was the target and victim of at least four massive cyber-attacks in the span of 12 months starting in July 2015. This company is responsible for nearly all of the UK’s network of railways in the face of such malicious attempts.

From 2014 onward, hackers across the globe have been able to cause major trouble for eBay, Heartbleed, Sony and Yahoo; the U.S. Central Command, the AshleyMadison.com dating website, Talk Talk and MySpace. All this shows the U.K. is also in need of shifting towards establishing a private, faster and better Internet network to manage and control its critical infrastructure. The least that can be done before there is such a major overhaul is to protect your website from all the increasing threats out there.

What’s in it for Australia?

According to mathematical laws, the National Broadband Network (NBN) in Australia should be considered a mere 30 Mbps network. Over half of this network is based on 25/5Mbps plans and as of 30 September, half of all the Telstra-using customers are continuing on this establishment, with an increasing interest in safeguarding customer security.

Speaking in terms of speed tiers, only 13 premises across the country enjoy the highest 1,000/400Mbps available plan. This signals a significant drop of 30 premises from the last quarter. This poor network infrastructure provides grounds for ill intenders, such as hackers and other enemies of cyber security, to be lured to target the network in Australia for various purposes. This provides the necessity for urgent action in this regard across the entire continent of Australia and most probably its neighbours.

Final word

Utility providers and consumers both understanding the possibility of a cyber-attack targeting critical infrastructure in the U.S. is absolutely crucial. Such an attack will place the entire grid in danger and compromise the daily lives of an unimaginable number of Americans who rely on utilities to deliver their electricity necessities day in and day out.

Electric utilities are in search of key technological advances and a private data network of broadband connections enabling them communication critical to their mission in the face of a cyber-attack. 

You can read more from Paul McNeil on his blog TechMoralitics or follow him on Twitter @mcneil_lfc.

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