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IEEE 802.16s: A wireless network standard for the industrial internet

The industrial internet of things continues to grow, spanning from dense, bustling smart cities to remote network edge locations. Industrial operators in the utility, transportation, government and oil and gas sectors, to name a few, are shifting operations to become more interconnected, using remote wireless automation for additional monitoring and controls. As IIoT growth increases so does concern over the availability, reliability and security of the networks that are critical to connect and operate these devices. To that end, for many industrial uses, we refer to these applications as MC-IoT, or mission-critical internet of things.

Historically, mission-critical industries have struggled to add communications infrastructure to their existing networks given they have to cater to more devices which previously were not connected, and address demands for enhanced security and more reliability. Most mission-critical entities have traditionally owned and operated their own private networks. Technologies such as LTE networks supplied by the wireless carriers are designed around the needs of consumers, not industrial users, and they do not meet the industrial-specific demands for reliability, latency and security.

To further add to the challenge of creating MC-IoT networks, mission-critical entities are unable to procure broadband spectrum required to implement private LTE networks. This means mission-critical networks are reliant on proprietary narrower-band systems with vendor-specific risk. As a result, the utility sector worked together to establish a new industrial-grade wireless standard, known as IEEE 802.16s. This standard opens multiple licensed spectrum options given the ability to adapt to narrower channels sizes, but allows for increased broadband-like capacity.

What is IEEE 802.16s?

IEEE 802.16s is a new worldwide wireless industrial standard, ratified by IEEE in October 2017, designed to meet the burgeoning need for a standard technology for industrial data communications in applications such as the smart grid, smart fields, automated rail and transit, security, environmental monitoring and others. Mission-critical entities use the standard to create wireless, private, highly secure, wide area and field area networks using licensed frequencies.

These networks provide a secure connectivity point for MC-IoT technologies used to monitor and control operations and support a variety of applications. In the utility industry, for example, the standard supports substation automation, down-line feeder distribution automation and distributed energy resources.

IEEE 802.16s networks are highly secure, application-agnostic (Layer 2), low-latency wireless networks with the ability to create a variety of quality-of-service levels to prioritize different kinds of data traffic at the device and application layer which allows mission-critical entities to customize these networks to meet their individual needs.

Why did the industry call for a standard?

To address the specific needs of mission-critical industrial and governmental customers including electric, gas and water utilities, The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the Utilities Technology Council (UTC), select utilities and key technology providers came together to develop the standard. The needs of these entities were unmet by the two most well-known wireless standards, LTE and WiMAX. Both LTE and WiMAX require more bandwidth than most mission-critical technologies are able to acquire. Additionally, LTE in particular is designed for low power transmission within urban and suburban environments. They were not designed to meet the needs of a wide area environment.

Utility, oil and gas, government, transportation and other industrial assets are typically dispersed over very large geographic areas in difficult-to-reach or remote locations often without existing wired or wireless connectivity. Through the standard, these entities are capable of establishing connectivity in even the most remote places. Additionally, since many of these services are critical due to the dependency consumers have on them for their safety and well-being, mission-critical networks need to be independent of the public network providers that are susceptible to reliability issues and prolonged outages, especially during natural or manmade disasters when mission-critical networks are needed the most. Other service-quality concerns include competition for network capacity with consumer-based applications including streaming video and inadequate upstream data throughput.

So how do 802.16s networks work?

The standard describes a method of efficiently transmitting data over licensed frequencies in a variety of channel sizes ranging from 100 kHz to 2 MHz. The combination of licensed frequency and channel size is ideal for mission-critical private data networks that need to support the monitoring and control of thousands of remote industrial devices that are dispersed over wide geographies. While initially developed for the electric utility industry, a variety of mission-critical sectors domestically and internationally are now embracing the standard, including the oil and gas industry, the security and defense markets, water and wastewater utilities, and the transportation industry, including railroad operators. Networks using IEEE 802.16s are now being referred to more generically as MC-IoT networks.

The flexibility of the standard allows network operators to obtain unused or underutilized radio spectrum without having to compete with the major cellular operators. Furthermore, the standard has a number of features designed to optimize the use of licensed spectrum in order to get the maximum amount of data through narrower channel sizes. This includes using time division duplexing, which eliminates the need to have a dedicated frequency for uplink and a separate dedicated frequency for downlink and flexible spectrum reuse methods.

More generally, standards such as IEEE 802.16s are important to help drive the necessary scale for rapid worldwide deployment of innovative, cost-effective and interoperable technologies. They enable mission-critical entities to purchase wireless systems without worrying about proprietary technology obsolescence or manufacturer product discontinuation or a manufacturer going away.

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