Market view: Pokémon, utilities and data networks

Utility networks are critical national infrastructure and should have dedicated, secure data communications rather than competing with Pokémon for space on public networks, says Neil Adams.

Connected utility networks are one of the most important and valuable assets belonging to a nation. The value of this infrastructure should not be ignored when considering the rollout of smart meters. These meters will mean every home and business will be sending back information on their power use on a far more regular basis than manual meter readings ever could.

This will give providers the opportunity to better know and balance their networks, with the potential for new tariffs and more efficient energy production. Consumers will have the advantage of paying for what they actually use, rather than an inaccurate estimate or payments based on the previous year’s usage.

How this data will be transmitted has to be considered when a connected utility network is rolled out. The Internet of Things, a concept that covers everything from connected utilities to fitness trackers, is now a familiar idea. Many of these things are connected through mobile and wi-fi networks that carry all kinds of data, from business communications to WhatsApp messages to people catching Pokémon.

But there is really no such thing as a single Internet of Things – the definition is just too wide to be useful. Some data and applications are too important to be part of this universal concept. Connected utilities should instead be part of a separate category, separate from other connected devices such as Fitbits and smart TVs: mission critical IoT devices.

These vital parts of a nation’s infrastructure must be handled in a different way. This “Internet of Utilities” requires a utility-grade solution. The network required must have the security, reliability and connectivity necessary for any infrastructure important enough to cripple a nation if it goes awry, should it be attacked.

Sharing wi-fi spectrum with families streaming the latest Marvel series on ­Netflix, or a congested cellular network thanks to mobs of children (and adults) playing Pokémon Go is not good enough for vital infrastructure.

Instead, a separate radio network for critical infrastructure must be part of the plan. It needs to use licensed spectrum, which supports mission critical IoT. That way the spectrum is dedicated to connected utilities and avoids accidental interference – or deliberate jamming. If this happens, action can be taken with the support of the telecoms authorities, whereas with unlicensed spectrum the regulator offers no protection.

Critical data is securely carried over dedicated spectrum. This is why the police and other national emergency departments use licensed frequencies to guarantee transmission. The data from connected utilities is just as important, carrying critical alarm notifications if something is wrong, or distribution automation, control and commands, that can help guarantee the power network remains available.

There are many advantages to dedicated licensed spectrum for mission critical IoT: the frequencies available have better building penetration and longer range, costs are lower and easier to predict, and high transmission power and high signal-to-noise ratios mean less infrastructure and fewer radio masts are needed.

Fundamentally, however, by treating smart meters and other mission critical IoT as not just another “thing” means recognising the diverse requirements of connected devices – some data is of little importance, and some is of critical importance.

Pokémon Go

Pokémon Go is a location-based augmented reality game developed for smart phone and tablet devices. It was initially released in selected countries in July 2016 and has since been downloaded more than 500 million times.

In the game, players use their mobile device’s GPS capability and their mobile or a wi-fi network to locate, capture, battle, and train virtual creatures, called Pokémon, who appear on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player.

There have been a number of security concerns surrounding the game, and the developers’ access to private information. It initially requested full access to a user’s Google account information, although developers Niantic stated the app only requires basic information.

The game has also courted more controversy after Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (Tepco) asked developers classify the highly radioactive Fukushima disaster zone as off-limits so that Pokémon won’t appear in it.