The Power Grid Is So Dumb That…

OK, I’ll finish the punchline . . . that a decades-old networking technology, which has disappeared from pretty much all other industries and has a fraction of the bandwidth of current networks, is still one of the most common choices for digitally connecting parts of the power grid. More specifically, according to Pike Research, utilities are commonly using leased telecom lines attached to 1200 baud modems to digitally connect electrical substations in their power grid network.

Most 1200 baud modems have a bit rate (how much data they can move) of 1,200 bits per second. For comparison, average consumer broadband speeds in the U.S. are 9.9 Mbit/s (1 Mbit is 1 million bits). So a 1,200 bit per second modem is more than 8,000 times slower than a 9.9 Mbit/s Internet device. My scientific conclusion is that’s hella old and slow.

In fact, it’s so old and slow that Pike Research says a common utility complaint is that carriers are seeking to get rid of these links, as they’re no longer profitable for the carriers. Decades ago it was fairly standard for a phone company to lease a dedicated phone line circuit (installed and configured by the phone company) to the utility in order to build wide area networks. But that’s not the case anymore.

Pike Research analyst Bob Gohn told me a bit more about why he thinks utilities are still using this technology:

1). “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Many of these lines have been in place (at least from a system design perspective) for over 20 years, and work just fine, so why change them? Also, these lines are generally very reliable.

2). The phone company may have installed a line to a relatively remote substation a couple of decades ago, but has not and will not put something else in without a significant fee.

3). But perhaps most significantly, the system protocols for SCADA systems (supervisory control and data acquisition) – from top to bottom – often assume there is a dedicated fixed line, and essentially rely on the attributes (speed, latency, etc.) of that fixed line. If it’s changed, even for a faster link like DSL or such, it may break the operation of the overall system.

Hence utilities stick with the antiquated technology, perhaps paying hundreds of dollars per month to lease the line, in order to not “upset the apple cart.” This is the key reason utility networks, like telecom networks before this, MUST switch away from these vertically integrated communications systems with their hidden system dependencies, and move toward layered protocol network implementations, where different layers can be switched out without unintentionally disturbing the rest of the system.

Amen to that.

For more research on the smart grid check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Report: Open Source & the Smart Grid

Home Energy Management: Consumer Attitudes and Choices

Cisco Seizes Smart Grid Low Hanging Fruit

Image courtesy of portmanteaus.

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