The Unifying Force

Mobile Technology Connects Assets at the Edge

By John Yelland, ABB Wireless

Planning, deploying and managing geographically distributed assets are some of the electricity distribution industry’s most demanding challenges. Whether installing new smart meters or conducting routine inspections, managing a mobile workforce is a complex and essential component of every utility operation. At the core of any mobile workforce strategy should be a communications system that delivers resilient, high-performance connections to mobile client devices.

The increasingly knowledge-based economy has taught investor-owned and public utilities that without the unifying force of wireless communication networks, transmission grids, distribution systems and substations would be a mere alliance of many separate parts. What might be less obvious is the concept that an “office” is no longer a place to which you go. Rather, the workplace is defined by the tools you use, wherever you are.

Just as mobile workforce applications go beyond uploading and downloading documents in the field, communications networks go beyond getting data from point A to point B. Used to their fullest potential, both work in concert to increase workforce efficiency and reduce operating costs while improving safety, asset life and customer satisfaction. To execute a successful mobile strategy, several factors must be considered, including cyber security, network management and various wireless technologies.

Engineering the Edge to Unlock Value

The distributed workforce is nothing new, but the degree of mobile technology and increased exposure to cyberattacks is new. Concerns that the tools used by hackers to attack Internet sites and enterprise networks also could be used to attack Internet Protocol (IP)-based field area networks (FANs) are legitimate. The biggest hurdle for many companies is securely incorporating legacy field devices.

For more than a decade, enterprises have faced the same security challenges that now confront IP-based FANs. As a result, a robust set of tools and techniques that are proven and time-tested with financial firms and governments provide a blueprint for successfully transitioning to IP while strengthening security capabilities. This includes whenever possible, ensuring virtual private network (VPN) connections terminate inside field endpoints.

For field assets that don’t support VPNs, the best protection is offered when the wireless network system devices to which they connect can terminate VPN connections at the port where they connect. Other security functions including firewalling, authentication and encryption, also should be implemented within the wireless communication networks to which field assets connect. Enforcing security policies at the edge of the network prevents unauthorized traffic from consuming network capacity and unauthorized users from probing network resources closer to the network core for security vulnerabilities.

By securing networks at the edge, the value of mobile applications is unlocked without jeopardizing the assets and data attached to moving over the network.

Keeping Wireless Network Systems Healthy, Stable, Optimized and Secure

The wireless network management systems (NMS) used to monitor and control mobile workforce applications also plays a key role in ensuring security. To the dismay of many network administrators and IT operations centers, however, most NMS are point-solutions that do not take the necessary holistic view of wireless communication technologies as a system to address key health and life-cycle challenges that are major sources of operational inefficiency and risk.

Post-migration Modern Wireless Communication Network

To move the required large amounts of data from disparate points on the grid in support of the myriad of mobile workforce applications, health, asset and life cycle management software must be embedded in the underlying wireless network system. The end result is a single pane of glass that provides intelligence, automation and visualization that facilitates standard, more efficient and continuous field operations and network administration processes.

Turning Mobile Technology Into Business Transformation

Integrating wireless technologies into existing FANs is the easy part. Modern wireless technologies can form the basis of an overlay network on top of legacy networks to provide the required communication foundation of high reliability, scalability, performance and security. The bigger barrier to unlocking business value is utilities are not built for change. Policy, standards and process are their strong suits; but pivot and course correct in short order-not so much.

Something must give, however, because more than half of all Internet access now occurs on mobile devices. The old paradigm of technological innovation being driven top-down will not support the required convergence between OT and IT. With no clear and funded fast path to near-term actionable wireless communication systems that are tied to a cohesive mobile workforce strategy, the utility industry is in for a bumpy ride over the next few years.

Investing in the Core Network and Innovation

While it’s tempting to just drive a standard around one wireless technology, a more sustainable and economical approach is to combine wireless technologies in an optimal fashion. The end result is a highly-intuitive platform that empowers field crews and supervisors along with schedulers and dispatchers in the office to manage and accomplish any field service work from the urban to the suburban to the ultra-rural.

At the heart of it, communication is the objective and the FAN is the mechanism that supports the objective. In the past, the only way to fulfill that objective was to reserve frequencies for specific tasks and lease infrastructure in support. Today, savvy utility field operations ensure that no matter where communication resources reside, when the network infrastructure devices are deployed and turned on, they communicate with each other and automatically configure themselves into an optimum utility communications solution.

A utility receives many benefits from mobilizing its workforce. From lower costs to improved customer service, workforce mobilization is one of the most powerful singular strategies a utility business can deploy to optimize productivity from beginning to end. Rather than an afterthought, the mission-critical nature of the network foundation should be a top consideration.

Are You Ready to Manage the Hyper Growth in Your Wireless Field Network?

To improve on-time responses, wrench time and job completions, utilities are increasingly adopting and rolling out mobility-based solutions. A well-designed platform can improve productivity while simultaneously improving asset life and customer satisfaction, which is a true win-win.

To put this growing phenomenon in perspective, statistics from a Zpryme market forecast indicates we are in the midst of 14-fold unit growth in the number of wireless grid-connected devices-moving from 25 million to 350 million, in a decade (2010-2020); it took cellular subscriptions 20 years to achieve this growth in the U.S.

Many utilities are quickly realizing they do not have the same luxury as the mobile telecommunications industry of trying to standardize on one wireless communication technology for every application. This type of wireless communication strategy introduces additional complexities and risks, especially with the many remote locations and unforgiving terrain within their service areas. Utilities need more than a device connection; they need a reliable and secure field area communication platform specifically designed for electric distribution utilities.

The next logical step for forward-thinking utilities is to migrate existing wireless devices and AMI collectors to a modern wireless communication network. This will strengthen and prepare IT and OT teams with the reliability and performance for the impending connected devices hyper growth, unlock the business value of mobility and data analytics and minimize risks with this transformational opportunity.

John Yelland is vice president of global marketing for ABB Wireless, a provider of industrial grade wireless networking solutions for utilities. Prior to ABB, he led global marketing at Moxa for industrial Internet and automation solutions. Born in London, he is currently based in California.

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