Broadband access: A regulatory call to action to protect utilities against cyber threats
Editor's Note: The following is a viewpoint from Jack Markell, former Democratic governor of Delaware from 2009 to 2017 and an advisor to the wireless communications provider, pdvWireless.
Energy suppliers are taking cyber threats seriously by shoring up physical infrastructure and hardening against cyber warfare. But they are competing with one arm tied behind their backs because they are using decades-old private radio systems to control these facilities, as opposed to the advanced broadband technology available today.
That's because historically, most policymakers have been primarily focused on protecting consumers from rate hikes. That's an important objective. And Public Utility Commissions, or PUCs, also have the responsibility to facilitate technological and regulatory innovations that could enhance the consumer experience and promote more reliable and secure systems.
By making access to dedicated broadband a priority for utilities — and by allowing them to include these investments in their rate base — PUCs will further enable grid modernization, vastly improving upon the dated technology employed today. That would result in the ability for first responders, health care providers and citizens to have lasting confidence in the reliability of the grid and the services they receive from it.
As Governor of Delaware for eight years, I often had to weigh decisions that balanced short-term political considerations with long-term benefits. Modernizing utility communications infrastructure will pay off for decades to come.
The good news is that game-changing broadband spectrum is readily available today. The bad news is that rules governing the use of such spectrum haven't been updated in over 30 years, making the achievement of this vision impossible, and I can say from experience, government process sometimes slows the necessary progress.
Fortunately, the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has a stated mandate to move quickly on important issues, can make administrative rule changes governing the radio spectrum used by these energy companies and other critical infrastructure operators.
Through a simple revision of its rules, the FCC has the ability to provide private, dedicated broadband spectrum to our nation's mission-critical enterprises, adding to the security and reliability of our grids, and further protecting every citizen that these grids serve.
The FCC needs to make such rule changes a priority, and recently FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he is doing just that by working on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the underutilized spectrum in the 900 MHz band. This spectrum is well-positioned to provide critical infrastructure and private enterprise entities with sorely-needed broadband almost instantaneously — with FCC approval.
At the same time, state public utility commissioners should consider granting utilities the flexibility to include the cost of broadband in their rate base. Having private, secure broadband networks is not just a nice-to-do; it's necessary to help protect and defend utilities against hackers and other bad actors. PUCs can step up to the challenge of enabling grid security by making it possible for utilities to earn a return on their investment in state-of-the-art communications systems.
It's time we ensure our grids are adequately secured and supported — to protect not only our 21st century economy but to protect lives. The Department of Homeland Security recently held a day-long conference focused on securing the nation's critical infrastructure. Now federal and state regulators must act rapidly to show that government is truly invested in cybersecurity for the nation's utilities.