March/April 2012
Web Exclusive

Wired vs. wireless in utility markets

Addressing the ongoing debate of wired vs. wireless technologies for communication networks in the utility industry, while examining current market trends such as copper theft

Fast Forward

  • Advantages and disadvantages of wired and wireless technologies for a communication network in the utility industry
  • The shift toward wireless technologies and its alignment with an increase in copper wire theft
  • The importance of security for wired and wireless communication networks and Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum technology's resiliency when faced with Denial of Service Threats
By Ashish Sharma

Wired1Many operators in the utility industry are looking for new ways to maximize their investment in communication networks while ensuring reliable, secure data transmission. There are a variety of communications solutions, the two most common being wireless technology and wired options, such as copper and fiber-optic cable. While both have a place in utility market applications, such as distribution automation, we are beginning to see an increase in the use of wireless technology.

There are many factors contributing to this increase, including cost savings, flexibility, and power consumption. When looking at the big picture, a utility operator will discover that each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages. Many feel the most reliable option for a communication network is the traditional wired approach. On the other hand, with so many different types of wireless technology, the decision making does not stop once an operator chooses wireless. Communication networks are not one-size-fits all, and it is critical for utility operators to understand the type of technology they need in order to have the most effective communication network for their individual system. Additionally, they need to consider the economic factors when searching for the best system that their budget allows.


Applying wireless data radios to utility industry

Wireless technology can improve data transmission for applications in many industries. For instance, when looking at utilities, wireless enables improvement of distribution automation for the smart grid. One example is recloser control. Traditionally, this action is handled manually. By operating resclosers, electricity can be re-routed over the grid in order to bypass problem areas. By applying automation, time and costs are saved, leading to optimized grid operation. This is just one example of how automating distribution automation can improve the overall performance of the smart grid.


Industrially hardened data radios, in particular, offer proven, reliable data transmission and advantages where:

  • The system owner wants to control the communications
  • Cell phone coverage is inconsistent or non-existent
  • Communication security is a priority
  • Budgets require efficient communications investment

In other words, data radios offer utility operators a viable solution for meeting their distribution automation requirements while also cutting costs. As the industry continues its fast-paced growth, the need to identify ways to lower infrastructure costs, improve time-to-market, and increase performance with reliable, easily installed networks are no longer a wish, but, a requirement.

As the smart gird market in particular continues to make strides in the power industry, utility operators are looking for economical ways to manage their systems. To do this most efficiently, some sort of communication system is required.

Wired versus wireless solutions

The classes of wireless radios that are industrially hardened and proven to be reliable in the harshest of environments are commonly deployed daily in mission-critical industrial applications and life-or-death applications in the military. These radios may offer the most effective, economical solution, when compared to other options. For example, when compared with fiber, wireless systems are relatively easy to install. In the event that a buried cable is damaged to the extent that it requires repair or replacement, the costs can be very high. Wireless systems are relatively maintenance-free and, if maintenance does become necessary, they are easily maintained. Once installed, top-class wireless systems rarely need any type of service. If, for some reason, maintenance is required, the best systems provide information regarding a pending maintenance concern, and the location or type of maintenance required can easily be detected remotely. So, operators only send someone out for service if/when they need it, thereby saving time and money. If engineered and installed correctly, wireless systems will be maintenance-free for years. At least one of the top-class wireless manufacturers provides backwards compatible solutions throughout its family of products. That, too, saves on maintenance concerns, as well as stocking and replacement costs.

Additionally, wired options are priced by the foot. With wireless data radios, the pricing covers ranges expressed in terms of miles. For instance, a pair of top-class serial radios will likely communicate reliably across 60-mile links with line-of-sight designs.


Wireless communication systems, options

If an operator decides wireless is the best option for their system, they have many factors to consider. The usability and ease of installation that come along with wireless brings many different options to employ communications needs. The major ones include:

Wireless data radios - The top industrially hardened class of proprietary protocol wireless radios systems are quite easy to install and require minimal labor; they do not require any trenching or expensive equipment. In addition, users can obtain real-time data fast. Users can be operational quickly and do not have to wait until some sort of network typology is complete. Once a remote radio and a master radio are installed, users can monitor these points right away

ZigBee - A standards-based wireless solution, Zigbee offers a self-healing mesh network. However, these products also have a direct sequence protocol that is susceptible to interference, especially when compared with proprietary protocol systems. The range is extremely short in comparison to others, and as users add repeaters to lengthen the range, the throughput degrades quickly. At 230 Kbps, the throughput without repeaters is acceptable in many applications. However, to achieve the self-healing networks, repeaters are required as repeaters are added, throughput decreases, and cost goes up.

Cell phone/satellite - Cell phone and satellite technologies are public systems and, therefore, not controlled by the plant owner. Carrier-based systems, such as these, include monthly fees that add to the overall cost of ownership, making it even more costly over time. Notoriously, cell phone-based systems do not have a history for being backwards compatible. Replacing old technology with new technology can be costly. In addition, consumer applications take priority in such networks given that is the main application. What are the advantages? Sometimes these systems can reach extreme or remote locations where it is not feasible to lay fiber or even deploy a full wireless communication network. This especially is true in the case of satellite systems. Satellite systems add significant amount of delays in data transmission and therefore are not a good fit for many applications.

Hybrid communications - None of the systems described above solve all problems in all situations. Hybrid networks-a blend of different technologies-often are important to consider. Hybrid networks also might include a mix of fiber, data radios, satellite, or cell phone-based technologies. A hybrid system can be a more cost-effective and effective solution for remote networks through lower hardware unit costs, fewer points requiring monthly fee-based satellite or cell connection modems, and lower power-consuming technologies.

The copper wire theft factor

A more recent factor in the surge of wireless technology is the dramatic increase in copper theft across the U.S. The struggling economy and the dramatic increase in the price of copper over the past several years are key factors in this criminal activity. In fact, it has created such a major economic impact that in 2008, a U.S. Department of Energy report predicted copper theft costs about $1 billion per year. In March 2011, the cost of copper was nearly $5 per pound. Looking back 10 years, in March 2001, the going rate was under $1 per pound. This increase was sparked by a demand in developing nations like China and India ( In alignment with this dramatic increase, copper wire theft has become a very lucrative for thieves not only in the U.S., but around the world. They are paid cash by recyclers who often provide copper to commercial scrap dealers. Without any physical proof that the copper has been stolen, these criminals easily remain under the radar. Despite the huge economic impact, there are no signs of it slowing down. With that in mind, it is critical for utility operators to take the initiative and protect their critical infrastructure.

Copper thieves often are targeting power lines, heating and cooling pipes, and grounding wires-all of which are necessary components of the modern world. According to open-source reporting, in March 2008, approximately 4,000 residents in Polk County, Fla., lost power after copper wire was stripped from an active transformer at a Tampa Electric Company facility. The blackout cost close to $500,000. Examples like this have operators looking for ways to prevent thefts, and many are finding that using wireless technologies make them a less likely target.

Additionally, legislation across the country is working to hinder stealing of the precious metal, and lobbyist groups have formed, such as the Coalition Against Copper Theft based in Washington, D.C. The Copper Coalition has continued to grow since its founding in 2008. In addition to the monetary expense of copper theft, the Copper Coalition also points out the human cost of copper wire theft, as it has identified a direct correlation with illegal drug use.

Thieves often have easy access to copper because utility sites are often remotely located. Without a security system in place, they can easily access the metal in broad daylight, stripping the infrastructure of its critical elements. Today, replacing or choosing wireless communication technology as opposed to copper wire solutions is one way to fight copper theft. In the smart grid industry, most thieves are crafty enough to avoid stealing the copper wires from high-voltage electric distribution or transport lines; they instead are going for the communication networks that are copper-based. When you look at the smart grid, the consequences of disrupting critical data transmission to the grid can have expensive consequences, like the power facility in Florida. Without proper data transmission, everything from power generation to distribution can be disabled. By using wireless for communication, operators can prevent copper theft. While historically, copper communication lines were considered more secure, we are starting to see a shift in this thinking, especially in utility industries, as a direct result of copper wire theft. However, operators must understand wireless comes with its own set of security concerns. It is critical to look for a system that can handle potential threats.

Security for wired vs. wireless

Unlike traditional wire-lined data communication, wireless is based on electromagnetic waves using radio frequencies (RF) propagating through open space. This provides wireless with some unique advantages, as communication endpoints do not need to be tied down to a fixed location and dependent upon a physical cable. However, the flexibility of wireless data communication comes at a price. Electromagnetic waves are non-discriminatory when it comes to access. While a wired connection requires physical access to the cable, wireless connections can be made anywhere along the path on which the electromagnetic waves propagate. Consequently, security (as in secure access) becomes much more important for wireless data communication.

An example many people are familiar with is someone sitting in a parking lot hacking a Wi-Fi connection to steal Internet access or gain access to private data (like credit card or bank information) through an unprotected wireless network. Another is the movie theatre or church that used a cell phone jamming device (even though their usage isn't legal in the U.S.).

Wireless resiliency

In 1941, Hedy Lamarr, an Austria born actress, together with George Antheil, co-patented a "secret communication system" that allowed radio control of torpedoes that could not be easily discovered, deciphered, or jammed.

The system used frequency hopping, or coordinated, rapid changes in radio frequencies that literally "hop" in the radio spectrum and evade detection and the potential of interference, in other words, being suppressed or jammed.

Her idea was ahead of its time and not implemented in the U.S. until 1962, when it was used by U.S. military ships during a blockade of Cuba. It is now the basis for modern Frequency Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) wireless communication systems.

FHSS wireless systems are very resilient when it comes to impairments such as interference and "jamming." Other effects can be observed when wireless signals travel through space, such as the "multipath" phenomenon, simply because they use only very small amounts of radio spectrum at a time and do not dwell at that frequency long, instead "hop" to another frequency quickly. This makes a Denial of Service attacks on FHSS systems very difficult, albeit, if not completely impossible. Today, some of the top-class wireless data radios use FHSS to ensure secure data transmission for utility application, including distribution automation.

High costs, difficult installations, copper theft, and more are driving operators to consider alternatives to wired solutions. In many industries around the world, including the military, there is evidence that wireless data radios are a very viable alternative. These technologies provide long-range, reliable, and affordable solutions. A wireless system can potentially save a company millions of dollars in installation fees.

However, operators need to be aware that not all radios are created equal. Top-class radios provide industrially hardened equipment and the flexibility to perform in almost any situation. By using FHSS, they also can offer enhanced security, easing the minds of those who trust wired for its reputation as the most secure method for data transmission. The increase of copper theft also supports the case for wireless over wired and offers a reason for operators to think twice about choosing copper wiring. Any manufacturer who has a solid product offering is likely willing to provide operators with test equipment to prove the technology before they buy it. It is easy to use, quick to install, reliable, and low risk. When return-on-investment is a key in determining the best communications solution, the benefits of top-class wireless data radios should be part of every decision process.


Ashish Sharma ( is chief marketing officer at FreeWave Technologies, Inc. ( Sharma has more than 15 years of experience in the telecommunications industry with a strong background in engineering, business development, product management, strategy, and marketing.