Communication Technology Considerations for the Intelligent Utility Network

Most industries have experienced
significant transformations over
the past few decades, which have
resulted in improved business processes
and a more efficient operating structure.
These transformations, to a large extent,
have been facilitated by applying appropriate
technology improvements, in concert
with changed business processes.

The utility industry is just starting to
take advantage of these transformational
opportunities, which are, in turn, affected
by several significant operational challenges,

  • An aging transmission & distribution
    (T&D) workforce, coupled with
    fewer workers entering the field
    and increased training costs and
  • An aging T&D physical infrastructure,
    making it more challenging to manage
    the distribution network in a safe and
    efficient manner;
  • Increased pressure to provide a reliable
    distribution network in support of
    today’s digital economy; and
  • Increased demand for products and
    services that allow customers to
    manage their energy use more efficiently,
    thus reducing future power

Solution building blocks that are critical to
the development of the intelligent utility
network (IUN) include:

  • Business and process models;
  • Architecture design, including a common
    data model;
  • Advanced analytics;
  • Advanced communication network
    architectures, and embedded sensors
    and actuators;
  • Additional technical infrastructure
    elements as required and
  • Industry partnerships, like IBM/Cisco.

IBM’s focus in this effort is to put a sensor
fabric in place across the utility value
chain, from the data sources, to the
applications that use the data, and then
to business support and operations (see
Figure 1). This model provides a utility
with the flexibility and agility to respond
to ever-changing requirements and integrate
or upgrade new operational environments.
In other words, the intelligent
network unifies the utility’s equipment,
systems, customers and employees. It
enables on-demand access to information
about customers, assets and the T&D grid,
which is then used to continuously optimize
operations and planning.

Intelligent Utility Network Functions

The IUN enables companies to manage
operations across the entire enterprise,
rather than in individual business units or
departments. One overarching objective of
the IUN is the deployment of various sensors
along the grid to collect and analyze
a wide variety of data in order to automate
certain actions to the grid (such as reconfiguring
the grid automatically). While
there are many elements of the IUN, the
following form the core design:

  • Feature 1: Enable Internet Protocol

    The IUN is based on the conversion
    from analog to digital, providing greater
    quality and access to operating information.
    By enabling all devices on the
    network through IP (Internet protocol)
    communication, companies will be able
    to grow their networks quickly and take
    advantage of new innovations. Examples
    of these technologies include wireless,
    broadband over power line (BPL)
    and voice over IP (VoIP).
  • Feature 2: Open Technologies, Open
    Standards, Consistent Architecture

    With the IUN, the complexity of using
    devices is decreased by adoption of

    industry standards. Internal users open
    devices with technologies already familiar
    to them, thus lowering the cost of
    acquiring new talent for development
    and maintenance. A common architecture
    drives the implementation, incorporating
    industry standard data models,
    open technology communications, and
    adoption by business partners.

  • Feature 3: Enable/Support New
    Business Opportunities

    As new business models are created,
    energy companies need to explore new
    sources of revenue. By building flexibility
    into their network design, businesses
    will be able to expand quickly
    and accommodate new acquisitions or
    divestures. Examples sweeping the utility
    industry include IP telephony, broadband
    Internet access and security-monitoring
  • Feature 4: Consolidation Through
    Public and Private Networks

    To realize the promise of convergence,
    utilities need a clear strategy for moving
    from a “disconnected” business to
    one that has key processes integrated
    through collaborative portals. Today the
    convergence of voice, video and data is
    set to transform business relationships
    and collaborative strategies forever.
  • Feature 5: Security Based on

    Regardless of the current or future
    infrastructure, information access
    and security is critical to energy
    and utility companies. By migrating
    to the IUN, companies can leverage
    the latest technology advances for
    securing people and devices throughout
    the network.
  • Feature 6: Business Resilience of
    Critical Infrastructure

    Today’s dynamic business climate
    mandates a shift from the traditional,
    reactive disaster recovery methods
    to a more process-oriented, proactive
    approach to information availability and
    business protection.

IUNs in Utilities

In the utility industry the device, network
and data domains reach throughout many
established networks, including corporate
enterprise wide area network (WAN) and
local area network (LAN), land mobile
radio, public cellular, supervisory control
and data acquisition (SCADA) and microwave.
To put it in historical context, these
networks enabled discrete capabilities
prior to the existence of many common
carrier services. Within utilities’ operating
environments, land mobile radio predates
cellular services; and microwave existed
prior to T-1, frame relay and Internet service
providers. When the current utility
networks are viewed holistically, in present-
day terms with present-day capabilities,
significant opportunities for reduced
costs and enhanced capabilities emerge.

At the physical infrastructure level,
the IUN’s value is in facilitating the
transition to a common IP-based environment
in which each element of the network
is assessed and optimized according
to the best, lowest-cost IP service available.
The IUN is not a panacea of perfect
solutions but rather a target that establishes
connections from the data source
to the decision maker and back. This
provides the functionality for tools like
end-to-end security, resource management,
data mining, common business
views, and adaptive computing and telecommunications.

Building the Right Foundation

The IUN infrastructure connects and
integrates information from substations,
IEDs/assets and smart meters via an
IP-enabled network. The network infrastructure
is typically divided into areas
based on physical, logical or wireless connectivity.
The basic building block of any
network is the LAN, which can be as small
as a switch/router in a one-room building
or large enough to support multiple buildings
in a campus environment with several
switches and/or routers. Historically LANs
were based on layer 2 of the open systems
interconnection model. As more network
devices and applications began to support
IP, LANs migrated to layer 3. Although
routers can be found in LANs, the predominant
devices are layer 2 or layer 2/3
switches. The LAN will normally provide
the highest speed to the end user or
device, which is 100 megabits per second
(Mbps) to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps).

A WAN spans multiple cities, states
or countries and is used to connect the
LANs. Like LANs, WANs have also been
migrating from a layer-2 environment to a
layer-3 network that supports IP. Although
the bandwidth of the WAN can be up to 10
Gbps, it normally supports multiple locations

The metropolitan area network (MAN) is
typically between a LAN and WAN in size.
It may span a city, county, state or several
states, depending on the requirements.
MANs usually take advantage of optical
technologies like synchronous optical network
technology or dense wavelength division
multiplexing; some MANs may even
use Ethernet via fiber optic cables or BPL.
The bandwidth of the MAN can be up to 10
Gbps, while supporting multiple locations.

In most cases, LANs, MANs and WANs
are created by connecting network
devices physically. Although microwave
and satellite communications have been
around for a long time, newer and less
expensive wireless technologies, like wireless
fidelity (WiFi), have become increasingly
popular. This wireless technology
includes IEEE 802.11a, b and g and supports
speeds up to 54 Mbps. In addition,
these frequencies do not require a license.
For those applications that do not require
higher speeds and when it is not costeffective
to pull cable or lay fiber, wireless
is a very good alternative. Keep in mind
that wireless is not meant to replace the
traditional physical connectivity of a LAN,
MAN or WAN, but is designed to augment
and expand the existing infrastructure, as
well as provide additional options. Wireless
also provides additional options such
as ubiquitous access, two-way communications,
data capture and zero-touch service.

In the past, there were separate communications
infrastructures for voice,
call centers, video conferencing, video
surveillance, security, SCADA and building
management systems for air-conditioning,
heat, ventilation and fire. Substations are
a good example of having separate infrastructures
with analog lines for phones,
RS-232 connectivity for SCADA (or remote
terminal units), coaxial cables for video
surveillance, fiber for LAN connectivity
and card systems for physical security.
More and more of these systems are being
converged onto one network infrastructure
in an effort to reduce implementation
and support costs, while driving significant
increases in productivity by providing better-
quality information more quickly.

Security is a common requirement in all
the areas and technologies. Although most
companies are 75 to 95 percent vulnerable
to external sources via the Internet, these
same companies are almost 100 percent
vulnerable to internal exploitation. This
vulnerability comes from the inability to
control the desktop – the fact that antivirus
software is based on signatures and
cannot address zero-day attacks, physical
connectivity to the internal network that
isn’t controlled and vendors or contractors
with non-company PCs who can and do
connect to the internal network. Nowadays
firewalls are being deployed internally
throughout the company to provide
security zones. One of these important
zones would be in front of the data centers
– and even within data centers – to protect
critical applications and data. Encryption
is another security technology that
used to be deployed across the Internet
exclusively but is now being used within
companies to provide an additional level of
security and data protection.

Leveraging the Foundation: The IUN in Action

Truck of the Future
Another way to leverage the IUN for
increased efficiency and productivity is to
extend it to utility trucks. These high-tech
vehicles are sometimes called the “Truck
of the Future.” Obviously, the trucks use
wireless technologies to send and receive
information instantly. Work orders and
tickets are opened, updated and closed in
real time, regardless of the truck’s location,
eliminating the need for truck crews
to return to the office for printouts.

One wireless technology used to enable
the Truck of the Future is the Cisco wireless
mesh network, which can span a city
or metropolitan area (see Figure 2). The
truck thus becomes a rolling wireless hot
spot that is never out of touch. This also
allows the truck to “heal” a part of the
wireless network if it goes down. When the
truck is dispatched to a work site where
part of the wireless network is down, the
truck itself (with its built-in wireless capabilities)
can bridge the wireless network
until the crew completes its work.

Cisco’s wireless technology provides
RFID capabilities, allowing tracking of the
truck, personnel and assets. With RFID,
assets like special tools can be identified/
located anywhere in the city or metropolitan
area to minimize loss or duplication.

Like their wired counterparts, wireless
networks are also being converged. The
general trend is to integrate voice, video
and data into unified communications
(UC). This allows centralized experts to see
equipment problems truck crews encounter
at the site and provide real-time advice.
By extending collaboration applications to
the trucks, utilities save time, money, and,
in some cases, lives.

Automating the Work-Order Process
In addition to receiving work orders in real
time, it is also possible to automate the
entire work-order process. Mobile workers
can use voice recognition software, realtime
pictures and video clips when they
submit or escalate the work-order process,
receive approval for repairs, order
parts or request additional resources.
With these capabilities, repairs are performed
more quickly and efficiently.

Securing Distant Assets
Another way to leverage the IUN, and
another benefit of UC, is the ability to
provide security via video surveillance. In
many cases, the video is captured via wireless
surveillance cameras and integrated
into enterprise security software systems.
This allows energy and utility companies
to provide enhanced protection of key
assets (like substations) that are located
remotely (see Figure 3). It is also possible
to integrate card reader systems (e.g., for
magnetic door locks) and RFID into security systems to provide a more complete
view of security, personnel and assets.

While leveraging this same utility network,
it is also common to provide network
security with an integrated firewall, virtual
private network (VPN) and intrusion
prevention. VPNs can be created with IP
security (IPSec), secure socket layer (SSL)
or multiprotocol label switching (MPLS).
Although all three of these technologies
enable VPN via some form of tunneling,
only IPSec and SSL provide encryption. If
encryption is needed across an MPLS environment,
IPSec is typically added.

Wireless Smart Meters
Another way to leverage the IUN is to
extend it to electric, gas and water meters,
as shown in Figure 4. Wireless meter reading
has existed for many years, but technology
has introduced some valuable new
capabilities, such as two-way communications,
continuous connectivity for short
interval (15-minute) reads, outage event
notification, remote connect/disconnect
and real-time price signals to customers.
Automated meter reading also improves
accuracy; reduces head count and turnover
rate; and delivers overall cost savings
and increased efficiency and productivity.


The intelligence of a utility network hinges
on the quality of its information and its
ability to access and integrate that information
anywhere, anytime. It must be built
upon the right infrastructure, along with
effective enterprise integration and business
applications for maintaining intelligence
both on the grid and among the
service functions designed to support it.
The benefits of establishing such a
network are manifold. By unifying a utility’s
equipment, systems, customers and
employees, the IUN enables on demand
access to information that the utility can
use to optimize operations and planning.
In the face of so many operational challenges
and an ever-changing environment,
the utility industry must apply
these types of technology solutions for
its ongoing success.

Additional content was contributed by
Ron Aberman and Jeffrey S. Katz, IBM.