Private Telecommunication Networks Can Provide Grid Cybersecurity Advantage for U.S. Electric Utilities

By Hank Kenchington, former deputy assistant secretary, Cybersecurity and Emerging Threats, U.S. Department of Energy, and Jim Fama, former vice president, Energy Delivery, Edison Electric Institute, and member of the Protect Our Power Advisory Panel

As electric utilities work to better-protect the grid while simultaneously integrating more distributed energy resources (DERs), preparing for a major increase in electric trucks and cars, and supporting the billions of interconnected machines and devices that comprise the Internet of Things, secure and reliable communications channels are critical to security and resilience.

The vital role of communications in helping ensure the integrity and reliability of the electric grid may not be readily apparent, but the secure, reliable, real-time transmission of data is key to sensing conditions on the grid and enabling system managers to control operations, sometimes in situations where seconds matter.

Importantly, as more and more generation sources, machines and devices intersect with the grid, the potential attack surface for cyberattacks increases, and the ability to monitor and control activity quickly and effectively could be the difference between a smooth, uninterrupted flow of power or a major system problem.

Electric utility companies have for decades owned and operated a variety of telecommunications networks to provide the wide range of communications services required to deliver electricity. For example, utilities may use wireless mesh communications networks for automated metering, WiMAX to detect faults on distribution circuits, and the Internet to access and manage equipment located in remote locations.

As a result, due in part to technology limitations, utilities often ended up with siloed and fragmented communications architectures that are challenging and costly to operate, maintain, and secure.

In the last decade, the nation’s power grid has undergone a major digital transformation, shifting from a century-old, centralized generation model to a more interconnected and distributed one with greater flexibility, control, and efficiency. At the same time, this digital evolution has often meant utilities using the Internet to connect grid-edge technologies. The Internet is attractive for this purpose since it is pervasive and provides low-cost connectivity, but relying on the Internet may make the grid more — not less — vulnerable to cyber risks and attacks.

In fact, the 2020 annual report from Dragos, a well-known Industrial Control System (ICS) security company, found “that adversaries accessed ICS networks directly from the Internet in 100% of Dragos’s 2020 incident response cases.

Recognizing this concern, some utilities have been leading the way in developing private, secure telecommunications networks (wired and wireless) to meet specific communications requirements (e.g., bandwidth, speed, latency, and security) and create a foundation for further digitalization of the grid and isolation from the Internet.

  • AVANGRID built a new private, secured fiber optic network, an industry-leading practice to enhance cyber security protections.
  • Southern Company created Southern Linc to deploy a 4G LTE highly reliable and secure network for mission critical services across the Southeast.
  • AEP operates one of the largest energy company private fiber optics networks in the U.S. and is expanding it to meet the data needs of an increasingly digital smart grid,

National advisory groups recognize that private networks can better secure critical infrastructure against cyberattacks. The President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council, composed of senior executives from industry and state and local government, recommended in a 2017 report that critical infrastructure owners and operators “Establish separate, secure communications networks specifically designated for the most critical cyber networks, including ‘dark fiber’ networks for critical control system traffic and reserved spectrum for backup communications during emergencies.”

Most recently, the Southern States Energy Board adopted a resolution stating “…private, reliable, purpose-built, cyber-secure broadband communications networks can be isolated from the public Internet and thus provide a more secure foundation for new technologies required to modernize the electric grid.”

New wireless spectrum enables end-to-end resilient communications networks

In 2020, the Federal Communications Commission issued two rulings making spectrum available in the 3.5 GHz and 900 MHz bands to support further development of secure resilient communications networks for critical infrastructure.

As utilities build out the grid to meet new customer requirements and integrate more renewables, the number of grid applications that require high-bandwidth, low-latency capabilities will grow substantially. With the new mid-band and low-band wireless spectrum allocated by the FCC, utilities will now be able to design and deploy advanced communications networks, including private Long-Term Evolution (LTE), which offers utilities several benefits:

  • Common communications platform supporting a multitude of services including broadband data, and high-speed to support solar deployments, voice, and video.
  • An open standard and global ecosystem managed by 3GPP to ensure interoperability across vendors and networks.
  • Fully-owned and operated systems provide high reliability, network visibility and full situational awareness.
  • High levels of built-in security with strong encryption and security mechanisms.
  • Provides a future-proof launchpad for next-generation wireless communications technologies including 5G.

With private LTE, coupled with a fiber backbone, utilities can now design an advanced communications architecture to support a multitude of grid applications to provide a cost-effective, end-to-end secure and resilient communications network.

Utility Initiatives

Several electric utilities are already seizing the opportunity:

  • Ameren announced it will use a 900 MHz private LTE network to serve a range of broadband-enabled applications and services including the integration of distributed energy resources to help meet the company’s net-zero carbon goal by 2050.
  • Xcel announced it will use a fixed LTE 900 MHz infrastructure, in combination with its Citizens Broadband Radio Service-based network, to enable the exchange of voice and data to support existing and new grid-of-the-future applications.
  • San Diego Gas & Electric is deploying a private LTE network for metering, faulted circuit indication, wildfire mitigation, and mission-critical push-to-talk capability. The new system will also help serve SDG&E’s growing need for renewable power, energy storage, and electric vehicle charging.
  • Southern California Edison is building a 4G/LTE private wireless network to enable low-latency, high-bandwidth communications between the grid management system (GMS) and existing grid devices to achieve its vision of the future – Reimagining the Future.

As these developments illustrate, advanced telecommunications technologies and private networks offer a promising opportunity for utilities to enhance grid protection from cyberattacks and strengthen resilience.

Federal, state, and local policymakers should support the use of private networks, and Congressional consideration should be given to allocating an appropriate level of federal infrastructure funding to their use, to help cost-effectively advance grid cybersecurity.

Hank Kenchington

James Fama

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