Modernizing Spectrum Is Essential to Transform Critical Infrastructure

While there are various estimates of the number of Internet of Things devices that will be in place by 2050, there seems to be consensus that the number will be in the tens of billions. These are impressive projections, and they also have the potential to spell trouble for our nation’s 16 critical infrastructure sectors, which struggle to handle the current breadth of “smart” (or connected) devices.

The energy sector, as well as its corresponding century-old power grid, depends on the largest interconnected machine on Earth. As such, the utility industry is well-positioned to deploy a dynamic, interactive and real-time architecture, enabling grid operators to make more accurate and timely decisions.

The extent to which our towns, cities and regions will benefit from these connected devices depends heavily on the modernization of infrastructure, such as the power grid. We have heard reports of the grid’s vulnerability to hackers — a situation that both the industry itself and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security deem paramount. Traditional security tools will, of course, have a role in protecting the grid and managing risk. In particular, broadband spectrum could serve as a pillar of information sharing and safeguarding.

A recent report from Navigant Research states that “without robust, interoperable, and ubiquitous networking, [utilities’] futures could well be in peril.” Communications systems are the backbone of reliable electricity supply. Unfortunately, utilities are currently forced to manage their communications devices in an ad-hoc manner, relying on multiple unsecured networks to do so. As the report goes on to state, “In order to manage these many diverse new demands, utilities will require high capacity, low latency communications networks across their service territories.”

The building out of tomorrow’s infrastructure and communications deserves a partnership among government agencies and commercial entities, as well as a holistic strategy that prioritizes common-sense and near-term solutions within a digitally focused economy. This is beginning to occur with 5G networks, as many different sectors are realizing the potential of 5G for health care, transportation and, of course, energy.

The Federal Communications Commission’s 5G FAST plan represents a government initiative making progress in terms of modernizing, transforming and securing critical infrastructure. As allocating and revamping more spectrum is a priority, the plan aims to update many different spectrum bands, including 900 megahertz, to prepare for the advent of 5G.

Spectrum is a valuable national resource, and it must be optimized to support the data and communications comprising the Industrial Internet of Things. However, the promise of spectrum cannot be unleashed without removing unnecessary regulatory hurdles that hinder the revamping of spectrum bands. This is a critical success factor in building out the infrastructure that will support and secure tomorrow’s technological advances.

In addition to opening the airwaves for 5G, other uses for spectrum can prepare us for the interconnected landscape of smart infrastructure. The FCC currently has a proposal in front of it to modernize the 900 MHz spectrum band, which will allow utilities to access critical broadband spectrum, providing the resilient, reliable and secure infrastructure necessary for today’s digital communication landscape — a landscape dependent on operational technology and information technology co-existing. The FCC’s issuance of a notice of proposed rulemaking on the 900 MHz band would represent much-needed progress in arming U.S. utility stakeholders and industrial control systems with spectrum assets needed to safeguard against cyberattacks while affording enhanced citizen services.

While the FCC can make an important contribution to facilitating grid security by modernizing this 900 MHz band, it is not the only government body that should bear responsibility. The U.S. Department of Energy and DHS should be calling for the use of this spectrum, as well, for it will help secure our nation’s over-arching critical infrastructure agenda.

DOE’s Grid Modernization Initiative is a critical effort that provides necessary research and development opportunities to develop technologies and tools that will help analyze and protect against cyberthreats to our nation’s energy infrastructure. DHS has also turned its attention toward safeguarding critical infrastructure, establishing the National Risk Management Center, which aims to better evaluate and manage cyberthreats to the energy, finance and telecommunications industries.

However, these efforts do not provide near-term solutions that will help address the immediate cybersecurity needs of our nation’s critical infrastructure. The leaders of these programs must further their efforts in the development of innovative solutions by working together to advocate, and help provide funding, for the use of broadband spectrum to build the networks that utilities need for secure and private communications.

Advancements in individual industries will be in vain without the overall communications infrastructure needed to support them. That is why government agencies and industry leaders must realize the importance of working together to make improving infrastructure a top priority for the United States.


Jack Markell is the former Democratic governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017.

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