Deploying gigabit-speed broadband for critical-infrastructure networks

Jan. 13, 2021
Exploring the benefits of the fixed 5G-wireless option.

By David Sumi, Siklu vice president of marketing

Within the worlds of enterprise and industrial networking, perhaps the most demanding requirements are within the critical-infrastructure (CI) sector. According to the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), there are 16 critical infrastructure sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination thereof. Such facilities include dams, chemical and petroleum plants, nuclear and other energy facilities, water and waste-water works and transportation systems.

And like everything else in industry or on the consumer side, broadband connectivity requirements are increasing rapidly. If a home needs a half a gig, then imagine how much broadband capacity an industrial or CI site would require. Established in November 2018 as a standalone US federal agency operating under the oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, the CISA works with state and municipal-government entities where these facilities are located, in terms of network and cybersecurity requirements and best practices. Part of the CISA recommendations pertain to broadband requirements for surveillance-network support. Local governments use a variety of sensors, cameras and even radar to secure their facilities. And video, by far, is the biggest consumer of broadband in this effort.

Other broadband drivers are found at power plants, where power-equipment suppliers are developing equipment such as switches and routers for the smart grid, which demand gigabit connections. This scenario creates a situation where the video and data information transmitting capacity easily exceeds several gigabits per site. Fiber optic, naturally, has the capacity and transmission speed to meet those requirements, but it could be very expensive to deploy fiber at a remote site far from the city limits. Furthermore, it is just not possible to dig a trench and lay fiber (or deploy it aerially) at nuclear-power plants.

Wireless connectivity has always been the go-to in terms of speed of deployment cost where landline options do not exist or to “fill in the gaps” in certain areas. But what kind of wireless technology could possibly meet these high-level broadband requirements? The answer is in what’s known as fixed 5G systems operating in the higher-frequency 60 GHz and 70/80 GHz bands.

Mobile 5G or 5G NR (“new radio”) networking has been heralded for a few years as the broadband enabler for enhanced consumer services (often related to video) and the edge-computing applications that include enterprise or CI networks. 5G features greater capacity, reduced latency and faster speeds—think gigabits per second rather than the megabit speeds of 4G LTE networks. And indeed, several mobile-network operators around the world are using either 5G NR or other specially-licensed lower-frequency bands (e.g., 3.6 to 4.2 or 4.4 to 4.9 GHz) to provide 5G private networks for industrial customers.

However, within mobile 5G, the lower-band frequencies are often tied up in regulatory red tape or are the sole province of the large mobile-network operators. And these restrictions apply, as well, to the newly allocated mm-wave bands of 28 and 38GHz. Further, the mobile 5G bands just do not have the available spectrum to support gigabit speeds—only a few hundred MHz, as compared to the fixed 5G bands, which offer 24 GHz of contiguous spectrum.

But there’s another way to deliver gigabit wireless connectivity to support the security of this critical infrastructure—the fixed 5G mm-wave bands of 60 and 70/80GHz.

Systems operating in these bands feature gigabit connection speeds and mission-critical “single digit millisecond latency” and encounter virtually no interference from other wireless networks (such as WiFi) or other sources. In fact, these mm-wave systems are sometimes referred to as wireless fiber for those reasons. Further, radios in this band offer flexible deployment options, ruggedized housing to stand up to the elements and secure transmission capability—as hacking into mm-wave channels is not a trivial matter.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of these bands is that they are open (e.g., no regulatory red tape) and available to anyone, now. For instance, the 60 GHz band is unlicensed and available throughout most of the world and the 70/80 GHz band is what is known as lightly licensed and can be used after submitting an application and paying a low one-time fee. For all of these reasons, these mm-wave networks can serve as the primary transmission link or as a backup connection where fiber happens to be available.

In terms of best practices and considerations as to deploying an mm-wWave network such as this, the following observations result from Siklu’s years of experience installing gigabit-speed wireless networks at nuclear and power plants. As mentioned above, video-based security is driving broadband requirements at such installations and it is just not the raw video feeds (which are now 1080p HD in most instances) driving, but the video-processing and analytics systems as well.

For instance, such video software monitors the quality of the network; if a network link goes down, the software immediately notifies the user in the event the loss is due to a perimeter attack. Video-processing systems incorporating AI (artificial intelligence) features, in particular, rely on high-quality, error-free video streams. AI video-analytics software is particularly suited for real-time safety and security applications. Such software improves situational awareness with AI video analytics, sensor integration and information fusing for automated real-time event detection and forensic video-content analysis with primary emphasis on automated intrusion detection and camera tracking for country borders and coastlines, facility perimeters and critical infrastructures.

The number of multi-sensor cameras (including thermal-imaging cameras) in a power plant can be 50 or more—it is not possible to connect them all with fiber. Often only a few can be connected and the bandwidth requirements can mount rapidly as thermal cameras generate 25-50 Mbps, while  4k video cameras with high frame rates can push 50 Mbps.

mm-wave systems have been proven to be a perfect complement as they provide gigabit capacities and highly flexible, rapid deployment options for connecting cameras wherever they may be. They also must be immune to jamming with downtimes measured in seconds-per-year. Not only does the network have to be always on and available, the transmission of images and data that form the input for advanced AI algorithms has to be error-free and flawless. This requirement refers to factors such as jitter, latency and packet loss. As a result, detection range and the accuracy of detection and classification are increased, allowing security personnel to more efficiently and effectively identify threats.

Other network characteristics to consider

For operational security, the wireless network must support the most stringent methods of data encryption, user-access protocols and protection against jamming and other malicious interference (e.g., hacking). In terms of physical security, the equipment must be ruggedized enough to operate in extreme and hazardous conditions, with IP code ratings of 67 or more. (The IP code, or Ingress Protection Code, IEC standard 60529, sometimes interpreted as International Protection Code, classifies and rates the degree of protection provided by mechanical casings and electrical enclosures against intrusion, dust, accidental contact and water.)

A recent case study involving a nuclear power plant illustrates these attributes well. The nuclear facility required enhanced intrusion detection for the new SOCA (Secured Owner Controlled Area) surrounding the existing protected area—a new ring of protection required by new regulations. The mandate included improving the response effectiveness by providing delay and detection capabilities at the SOCA perimeter. There was no available fiber-optic lines and the cost implications to deploy it were significant. Other wireless options (such as cellular and sub-6) were evaluated but they could not meet the security requirements.

A 60 GHz mm-wave test network was installed at a testing and development site and extensive tests were performed, with the objective of trying to break the system. This testing underscored the viability of mm-wave networks for mission-critical deployments like this, as it was virtually impossible to undermine network security and it revealed the ability to create a redundant network for failover (using ERP technology). Further, the multi-gigabit bandwidth proved capable of supporting hundreds of thermal and low-light color cameras.

As earthwork at a nuclear power plant is very difficult, no-dig camera, radar and solar poles were erected along the perimeter fence line and more than 200 Siklu EH614TX point-to-point 60GHz IP67 radios with range of up to 0.6 miles (1 km) were installed. This might seem like a large number, but the cost compared to fiber connections was substantially less and the network’s multiple-ring topology provides full redundancy and it has “gigabits in reserve” to accommodate additional cameras.

Similar recent case studies include LNG plants, traditional electric power-generating facilities, petroleum exploration and production operations and one of the largest container seaports in the US.

As noted in the opening, in all of these situations the broadband-network solution has to be rock solid, literally impenetrable and with “five 9s” (or higher) system availability. Fixed 5G mm-wave systems have proven over the years to be a highly secure means of gigabit-level connectivity or, in other words, fiber performance with wireless flexibility, meaning quicker deployment using existing infrastructure such as rooftops and poles. Many such networks have now been deployed, with now more than 100,000 radio units in operation globally.