Cisco to FCC: 5 Suggestions for the Smart Grid

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plans to make recommendations for how the National Broadband Plan — due to the U.S. Congress on March 17 — should help shape the fledgling smart grid industry. Interested parties have been submitting their comments over the past few weeks, and this week network infrastructure giant Cisco submitted its comments to the FCC, with a couple of key suggestions.

First, Cisco’s “shoulds”: The National Broadband Plan should embrace broadband for the smart grid, it should look to the IT industry for smart grid security, and it should focus on correcting the problems with incentivizing utilities around energy efficiency, says Cisco. And the “should nots”: The plan should not pay much attention to calls for separate spectrum for the smart grid, and the concerns over interference of unlicensed spectrum are overblown, says Cisco. Here are five suggestions that Cisco has for the FCC when it comes to the smart grid:

1). Broadband Smart Grid: It’s not just about Internet Protocol (IP), which Cisco has been stongly promoting, but Cisco says the smart grid will be fundamentally tied to broadband. Cisco writes “not only will the new smart grid largely depend upon broadband technologies, but the extension of broadband to all end users is critical to delivering on the power and promise of a broadband-enabled electric system. We will not be able to achieve the full effect of a smart grid without a robust broadband network that connects the supply side with the demand side of the electric industry ubiquitously.” That’s a huge contrast to the jaw-droppingly awful crawling speeds of current utility networks which Cisco says “generally transmit only 256 bytes of data and can operate with a latency approaching two seconds.”

2). More Spectrum for Utilities? Meh: Some utilities and telecom trade groups have been calling for the FCC to allocate separate wireless spectrum just for the smart grid. The FCC’s new Energy and Environmental Director, Nick Sinai said recently that one of the ways to promote the use of commercial networks over proprietary networks for the smart grid could be working with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to look at available federal spectrum bands.

Cisco says “it appears that advanced wireless technology platforms available today or in the near future are likely to have sufficient bandwidth and quality-of-service to support evolving smart grid needs for the foreseeable future. Thus, additional spectrum is not needed to deploy technology that is unique or specific to smart grid applications, per se.” (Updated: to clarify, Cisco also says that the decision to allocate more spectrum should rest on the FCC reviewing other factors).

3). Interference Concerns Misplaced: There has been a debate over whether or not smart grid services should run over licensed spectrum, which is owned by one entity and can be used for a single purpose, or unlicensed spectrum, which is shared and doesn’t require an expensive license to access it. Some have raised concerns (including the group that created a report for NIST) that unlicensed spectrum could have issues with interference for utilities’ services. Cisco says: not so much:

“In Cisco’s view, interference concerns are misplaced. The 802.11 [WiFi] standard is a ‘contention-based’ protocol, which means that, if packets are missed as a result of simultaneous use of a channel by different devices, they are simply requested by the receiving device and re-sent. Thus, an increase in simultaneous users does not fundamentally affect the reliability of the data transfer.”

4). Look to the IT Industry for Smart Grid Security: Cisco says concerns over security for the smart grid are real, but that the industry and regulators should look to the companies that have already built security applications and tools based on Internet Protocol. And yes, that means look to Cisco.

5). There’s Still A Regulatory Incentive Problem: Despite all the standards work done by NIST, and the injection of the $4 billion in smart grid stimulus funds, Cisco says there’s still a fundamental issue with how to incentivize utilities to sell less electricity. Specifically Cisco asks the National Broadband Plan to ask the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency to update a report on a rolling basis that looks at the most successful cost recovery practices and efficiency projects. Cisco says: “The real work of deploying a smart grid will come from ‘smart regulation’ and even ‘smarter deregulation’ by state utility commissions.”

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