By the time Rob Moore and his team arrived in Cook Inlet off the southern coast of Alaska, the gas leak was visible from the boat. A natural gas pipeline had failed, releasing hydrocarbons into a critical habitat for a rare type of beluga whale and several other endangered marine species. “You could see waves of bubbles coming up from under the water,” said Moore. “It looked like an area of the sea was boiling.”
The powerful tides of the inlet had already diffused the gas into the surrounding waters, far beyond the patch of bubbles. The water above the leak was choked with ice and inhospitable to divers or repair technicians, so Aridea Solutions, where Moore is VP of Solutions, would deploy specialized remote sensors-basically IoT-enabled buoys-to float through the inlet above the leak and monitor the gas and oxygen levels of the surrounding seawater.
All they had to do is figure out how to get a signal back.
The War for Spectrum
Alaska’s rural Internet access is famously poor. Laying cable and fiber across the vast, frozen, rocky state is so challenging that 81 percent of rural Alaskans still didn’t have broadband in 2015. For this project, Aridea had to rely on the 900 mHz segment, an ultra-high range of the radiofrequency spectrum that is mostly occupied by unlicensed amateur and industrial operators and requires enormous towers to transmit data across long distances, to bounce a signal from the buoy to the boat.
But competition for even this less-popular segment has grown fierce in recent years as more operators are pushed out of licensed spectrum and into the electromagnetic doldrums. What was once a lonely spectral highway for local news channels and the occasional surveying project is now crisscrossed with signal traffic from all kinds of industrial IoT. The proliferation of users in the 900 mHz is a side effect of an invisible battle for the right to communicate wirelessly.
In the U.S., spectrum not reserved for federal purposes is doled out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the same regulatory body currently resisting the popular demand for Net Neutrality. For years, the FCC has been repackaging spectrum segments to be auctioned off to wealthy private operators like cell carriers. Water, gas, railroads, electrical utilities, and other mission-critical operators all rely on secondary spectrum markets to access those same federally regulated bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Equal Access for Unequal Value
The underlying problem with the FCC’s approach may not be economic, but ontological. Outside the U.S., the issue of spectrum allocation requires some cultural translation: The E.U. regulators call it “spectrum management,” “spectrum harmonization,” or “spectrum coordination,” each of which reflects a more collaborative, civic-minded approach to distributing a valued resource among multiple agents.
An internal E.U. committee report from 2014 warned member countries that forgoing the spectrum auction model could represent “an additional financial burden” in the form of lost revenue. But protections for E.U. industries operating under federal license, like state-owned utilities and emergency services, far outstrip the meager offerings for equivalent American services.
A critical number of these services in the U.S.-from environmental monitoring to industrial communications networks to weather balloons-are privately operated, meaning they don’t qualify for free federal spectrum, no matter how essential their services are.
This flattening of the consumer and critical traffic hierarchy forces private, but crucial, services to compete with mega-corporations for access to spectrum.
“At one time, there was a power designation in the spectrum,” recalls Kathleen Nelson, director of industry relations at the Silicon Valley-based private industrial communications firm Ondas Networks. “Utilities became the same as a pizza company, a bus company ... everyone but public safety [services],” which, as government agencies, benefit from access to free federal spectrum.
Instead, “utilities have to purchase spectrum that commercial carriers don’t use from spectrum spectators on a secondary market,” Nelson says.
The Cell Carrier Option
Why can’t mission-critical (MC) operators just use the same unlicensed networks and secondary cell service that other software employs? According to Robert Thormeyer from the Utilities Technology Council, a trade group that focuses on critical communications systems for utilities, that’s exactly the problem: Despite their lack of federal designation, MC operators aren’t like other private spectrum users.
For one thing, he points out, not all spectrum is equally suitable to all applications. “Different bands have different characteristics. Utilities are invested in specific bands, like 6 GHz, because they work for those applications,” Thormeyer says. “They’re weather- resistant and efficient over long distances.”
Unlike the newly crowded 900-band, the 600-also 6 GHz-is already the subject of a fierce regulatory battle. In October, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed that the 6 GHz band be opened to unlicensed commercial use, adding more pressure to an already dangerously overloaded spectrum–and putting essential services at greater risk of failure and catastrophe. MC operators who have worked in this range for decades have already developed robust hardware standards for operating here, and their applications simply don’t work as well in other bands.
Nor are industrial IoT applications (IIoT) suited to the kind of coverage they can get by buying secondary access from the cell carriers who win these auctions. If consumer data use is a conversation between a remote server or the Cloud and a user’s device, then IoT communications are a whisper network where machines are in constant communication with one another.
Sensors send out little packets of data that zoom from node to node before they can be received and processed at some distant gateway. This type of communication is known in the telecom world as machine-to-machine, or M2M, and it’s a hallmark of IIoT applications-and largely incompatible with the speed-over-coverage priority model of cellular networks.
Most pressing for mission-critical industries, however, is the issue of data security. It’s a concern that might not be top-of-mind for marine biologists, but MC experts know that utilities are especially vulnerable to the kinds of attacks that plague both unlicensed spectrum in the ultra-high frequency range and spectrum resold by cellular carriers.
Earlier this year, a Motherboard report revealed that certain American cell carriers had not halted their practice of selling real-time user locations to third-party data brokers, despite warnings from the FCC.
Another security concern: targeted attacks on utilities.
“Cellular carriers are vulnerable to denial of service attack,” explains Stewart Kantor, CEO of Ondas Networks. “If a carrier is taken down that way and you’re running the trains on public networks, you’re vulnerable to someone blocking the traffic.”
But moving toward the ultra-high-frequency range of the radiofrequency spectrum, as Avidea did to deploy its buoy signal relay, is a weak option for most industrial operators.
“They don’t want to use WiFi or higher frequencies,” says Kantor. “Coverage declines radically as you move up in the spectrum band. The antennas are bigger, the channels are narrower, and coverage is worse.”
The Stopgap Solutions
So far, however, the lights have stayed on. The growth in IIoT applications has prompted a stunning array of inventive solutions to the spectrum access problem. Network engineers have, unsurprisingly, focused on the hardware issues first.
Researchers at the University of Arizona made exciting strides this year in the development of flexible radios that hop from one unoccupied narrow-band frequency to another to avoid interference. Meanwhile, DARPA has demonstrated a similar function monitored by an artificial intelligence, where autonomous radios work collaboratively to dynamically redistribute spectrum based on real-time needs.
Ondas Networks has developed two distinct approaches to securing bandwidth for IIoT. The firm’s FullMax mission-critical IoT radio architecture, which offers an alternative system for MC operators frustrated with consumer-focused standards like LTE and Wi-Fi, became the basis for the IEEE 802.16 wireless standard in 2017.
Instead, the standard helps mission-critical data users-including the industrial operators on whose services much of civilized society depends-take advantage of what’s left over after the auctions: a smattering of narrow, non-adjacent legacy bands, which Ondas’ standard system knits together into a Frankenstein’s monster of radiofrequency segments.
The Traffic Revolution
More recently, Ondas has acquired spectrum in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico in order to deploy its own private networks. These two heavily industrial areas, totaling almost a million square miles nearly devoid of consumer traffic, are ideal proving grounds for a new industrial network solution: letting private, non-cellular firms purchase low-value spectrum and repurpose it for industrial applications.
These new networks are designed for M2M and edge architectures, making them perfect for industrial purposes, from trawling marine habitats for gaseous contaminants to monitoring the operation of shipping networks, railways, and oil rigs.
But while it’s an exciting development, it may not be enough.
Cisco’s annual Visual Networking Index predicted last fall that IoT would drive growth in the wireless sector over the next few years, with M2M connections accounting for more than half of the world's 28.5 billion connected devices by 2022. New standards and frequency-hopping technologies can help ease the strain on the spectrum, but even the most flexible wireless architecture needs access to at least a sliver of spectrum without intruding on another signal-and many IoT applications.
For industrial applications, interference can mean delays, confusion, and the occasional life-threatening failure. That’s a disastrous prospect, especially given the recent spike in climate catastrophes and their potential impact on vulnerable networks.
The Purposeful Network
So what would a truly efficient network allocation system look like? For Kantor, it means building efficiency and criticality into the management system from day one.
“When you stop to consider the hierarchy of who needs access to spectrum,” says Kantor, “you’re building what we call a purposeful network.” That means distribution that prioritizes criticality over opportunity cost.
But that shift in priorities can’t happen unless the FCC changes its definition of mission-critical to include private operators. Electric utilities may not qualify for government spectrum at the moment, but as Kantor points out, “if you live in Palm Springs and the power goes out in the middle of the summer, people are going to die.”
Thormeyer, who has now spent over a decade pushing for spectrum allocation reform from inside and outside the federal government, points out that utilities are not the telecom giants, despite widespread confusion; they’re really more like social services.
“Because utilities are regulated by federal, state, and local boards, they’re not like telcos,” he says. “They provide an essential service without which society couldn’t exist.”
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