Paying Attention to the Signs

Situational Awareness is key to Operating the Emerging Smart City Infrastructure

By Tony Bogovic, Vencore Labs

Utilities at the forefront of advanced technology are moving beyond the smart grid to a more advanced connected infrastructure, as smart city initiatives are becoming the norm for cities around the world. From city infrastructure to the grid, internet-connected devices are now an important part of communities. With such a wide range of use for these Internet of Things (IoT) devices, it is the utility grid operators, city officials and ultimately citizens themselves who rely on this technology.

The utilities-driven advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology was one of the first steps to a connected city. It was created by smart electric, gas and water meters connected to the smart grid and the communication between the utilities and the customer. Nowadays, AMI is positioned as a foundation for technology to evolve to multiservice networks with a multiplicity of applications that support city infrastructures.

These multiservice networks and applications include smart meters, smart streetlights, urban sensors, tolling, intelligent vehicles and more-all applications used daily. For cities to understand the need and business value of smart devices, utility IT and OT teams must know what is on the network and be able to identify, analyze and respond to any anomalous events detected. With the ability to monitor in real-time, utilities and cities can gain a better understanding of the networks’ health to keep devices connected and private information secure.

As smart city infrastructure continues to evolve and grow, continuous monitoring of IoT health and security is needed to ensure visibility and situational awareness of the networks. If one device experiences an outage or cyber-attack, then the all network devices could be at risk.

Smart City Infrastructure Evolution

From public transportation that relies on the smart grid to move from location to location to streetlights turning on at dusk, everyday events and their supporting devices are connected to the network. Intelligent technology to support city infrastructure is not new. What started as AMI networks to support utilities has led to a range of IoT devices that connect to the smart grid and support a range of city services.

What makes smart city devices unique is their ability to send small amounts of data over long distances-across networks of cities, counties and municipalities of all sizes. The devices’ low-power consumption enables them to produce the requisite amount of data to keep the network running, while also sending and receiving data payloads at the same time. A plethora of different devices and sensors are connected to the smart city infrastructure. Because these devices are relatively inexpensive to implement, they’ve been deployed in large numbers. When connected to the grid, these devices allow quick decisions to be made based solely on data.

Even though devices collectively produce high volumes of data onto the network, only a small percentage of the data reaches the backend systems in the operations center, including local data centers. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the pertinent data stays within the mesh network. With such a high volume of data remaining on the network and out of the data center, monitoring is the only true way to analyze the data from each device.

Utilities have some of the largest deployments of connected devices. As more devices are connected, more data is produced and collected. More data brings more opportunities for utilities and cities to gain intuitive insights. This influx of information, however, can be overwhelming for utility grid operators, and, correspondingly, more challenging to manage and secure. This leads to higher risks for cyberattacks as the attack surface grows. Every new device and connection represents a potential vulnerability, making real-time network monitoring increasingly important.

Importance of Monitoring

Grid operators can create significant benefits with real-time grid and IoT device monitoring and actionable intelligence. Detection, analysis and response to both operational and cybersecurity anomalies can mitigate or even prevent problems. The benefits of continuous monitoring span across operations, troubleshooting and security, and include:

  • Improved awareness: With continuous monitoring, grid operators can achieve visibility over the network, ensuring they know what’s happening at all times and gaining independent “ground truth,” which leads to quicker troubleshooting of network problems.
  • Enhanced optimization: In support of an expanding set of utility/city services, monitoring and making the appropriate network/IoT adjustments helps ensure smooth and efficient operations.
  • Quicker response time: In the case of a cyberattack or a malfunctioning device, operators can respond more quickly to threats on the network-responding as soon as a threat is detected.
  • More secure networks: Because threats can be mitigated quickly with continuous monitoring, networks that are continuously monitored tend to be more secure than those that are not.

Real-time monitoring of the grid and all connected devices can guard data integrity, while also protecting citizens’ personal information. This activity ensures, for example, that sensitive credit card data from smart parking meters is secure, while electricity around the city remains on. Without monitoring, cyberattacks against utilities’ technology could lead to much more than a power outage. It could lead to hackers taking control of the grid and causing critical infrastructure failure.

With proper monitoring and analysis, grid controllers can ensure the right data is encrypted to ensure security. This not only increases the network protection, it improves overall network operations.

Monitoring also allows each device connected to the grid to be measured for effectiveness. If one device is underperforming and hurting the network, or even if a device is helping the network, monitoring can detect and report this. Real-time dashboards, for example, can observe unusual and recurring periods of decreased field traffic due to network radio frequency interference. Real-time monitoring technology can pinpoint a malfunctioning device that is interfering with the network’s success. Because most of these AMI systems operate in the public ISM band of 902 to 928MHz, the particular devices impacted by this interference can be the smart meters and collectors. With monitoring, the malfunction can be quickly repaired with minimal disruption.

The tremendous growth of smart grid and smart city technology is another reason to monitor networks. Our increasingly connected world makes growth in these areas inevitable. The fast pace at which networks are evolving, along with their sheer complexity and size, often leads to device misconfigurations, exposing unencrypted AMI and Distributed Network Protocol (DNP3) traffic-the communication protocols between automation systems. When not properly configured, these communication protocols can lead to security issues that negatively impact operations. To help mitigate this risk, grid operators and IT/OT support teams must continuously validate controls’ security as they continue to expand the number of devices in the network.

The Future of the Smart City Infrastructure

The future for electric utilities is bright with the technological innovations that can help growth and operational efficiency. The smart grid will continue to connect with smart devices, building up more information and insights that will help power the infrastructure of cities of all sizes. Continuous monitoring is one key in achieving greater situational awareness and ensuring the grid is operating correctly and remains secure.

With proper monitoring, utility grid operators, city officials and citizens can be sure that data and the technology that houses the data remains secure, effective and functional to support the critical infrastructure relied on by many.


Tony Bogovic is vice president, advanced consulting and engineering, at Vencore Labs. Bogovic is a seasoned management and technology leader, having held multiple positions within Bellcore, Telcordia, Applied Communication Sciences and Vencore Labs. As head of the advanced consulting and engineering group, he directs the development and delivery of solutions and services across a wide spectrum of telecommunications operations, security and network management technologies and integrated systems. Bogovic has held leadership industry positions in areas ranging from next generation networking to operations support systems. He holds a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University.

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