Creating the Ultimate Communication Network
There are many challenges that one will encounter when piecing together the ideal communication network.
There are many challenges that one will encounter when piecing together the ideal communication network. While many would have you believe that you can easily accomplish your communication goals with a single product, just remember one thingyou can’t!
Historically, many mistakes have been made due to lack of planning, insufficient research and of course the mother of all mistakespoor decision-making. It is human nature to want to trust our colleagues, our neighbors, the nice sales person from the company you just learned about, or the reliable representative you’ve known for years. When looking to build a communication system, you will pay the price without proper planning and careful consideration.
If you keep in mind the consequences of making a bad decision you are on the right track to creating the ultimate communication network.
Steps for Success
When looking to achieve any goal one must understand where they want to end up. If you want a communication network that won’t meet your needs today or in the future then all you need to do is buy a few communication devices for a low price, install them in the field and let the good times roll! However if you want to build a communication network that meets both your current needs AND your long-term goals then take the time to build a communications strategy complete with tactics and measurable objectives.
The intent of this article is to outline good processes and provide steps to assist you in deploying a communication network that can meet your needs and goals for many years to come.
Step One – Identify needs, goals and limitations
Without physically identifying your current needs, your future goals and your real or potential system limitations you will never be able to “create” the perfect communication network. In this first step consider the equipment or locations you want to communicate to or from. Understand what the future communication plan is. Will you be utilizing a high-speed backbone with complete need for Internet Protocol addressability? Are you up to speed on internal or federal security standards? How often will you be required to refresh the data? Will you need data by exception or timed poll and response data? What type of equipment (PLC, RTU, other) will the communication device(s) be connected to? What type of data interface capability does the equipment have? What equipment will you be installing in the future? These are just a few of the initial questions you will need to address.
As a starting point, an important recommendation would be to speak with managers within your own organization and ask what efforts have been made to date on the communication front. Start with the IT department! Second, seek out a trusted source that has recently gone through the process. Take advantage of their planning successes and failuresuse their experience! Everybody wants to either show off their new system, boast about their success or, at the very least, help a friend or colleague.
Step Two – Are there any budgetary concerns or limitations?
Nothing derails a great plan quicker than lack of dollars.
Budget is always step two for a reason. After determining your needs, you better know what you’re able to spend. This may be the most “fuzzy” area because so many costs are hidden in the actual rollout and long-term support of a system.
Generally, during the purchase cycle you get a quote, justify the costsometimes at the expense of headcountthen you submit the request for budget approval and wait for the dollars to be distributed. Unfortunately, the cost of buying (budgeted capital dollars) is sometimes dwarfed by the cost of maintaining (operating budget) a system and/or keeping it running. Know the support available from both the seller and the manufacturer. This includes warranty and “promises.” Remember, one day that nice salesperson may be moving on or the manufacturer that sold the equipment may be acquired and you don’t want to have to buy what was promised as part of the deal.
Step Three – Know the market and the available technologies
This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s time to research all available options, to learn what is really available and what is going to be available in the future. Don’t fall for the old “we are going to release it next year” routine. ‘Buyer beware’ is a popular saying for a reason! Talk with colleagues within your organization. Attend association meetings and trade shows. Proactively contact manufacturers. Remember not all manufacturers know your specific situation and your needs. Today’s communication products vary in every possible way. Each manufacturer or technology has advantages and disadvantages.
It is also very important to know and remember that not a single productand likely not a single manufacturercan meet all of your needs. This is why the process starts with Step Oneidentifying needs, goals and limitations.
Investigate as many options as possible. Look at serial communication, Bluetooth, Ethernet, Microwave, landlines and cellular networksanything that is available. Just be sure to learn the true limitations of each. These limitations will include cost (installed and ongoing), reliability, technology obsolescence, capabilities and flexibility. Also learn the benefits of each. How has the product performed over the years? Does the manufacturer stand behind their product and deliver on their promises? Is this technology proven or is it end of life?
Next, as you will probably not deploy a brand new communication network all at once, learn how the products work between various generations from the same manufacturer. If, for example, a radio manufacturer is not compatible between past, current and future generations, you could be in trouble when you need to expand your network in three or four years.
Understand how you can combine technologies to meet your needs. If you need mobile access to your Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) network, find somebody that offers it. If you have a microwave tower place, use it. Piggy-back slower licensed radio networks with faster 902 to 928 megahertz (MHz) frequency hopping, AES encrypted networks. Know that you can install I/O capable radios (analog and digital signal, four to 20 and one to five) to relay contact closures or other data without adding a new PLC or RTU. Technologies have advanced over the years, so toss out your old perceptions and learn how the latest technologies can go to work for you.
Step Four – System design, deployment and support
This is the step that can bring great planning, thorough research and unparalleled negotiating to its knees! Be prepared to pre-plan your installations by taking the extra step to have path studies and network design models completed. Most reputable organizations will offer these services for little or no charge or will waive the fee if you buy their equipment. Generally, you will work in cooperation with your suppliers to establish network expectations and gather GPS coordinates for entry into a computerized software program that can provide you with communication paths, fade margins, Fresnel zone, topographical mapping, etc. for your future network.
After reviewing the path study and network design information, focus on preparing a detailed project plan. This plan should detail the installation stages prior to actual deployment. Have meetings with manufacturers, installers and anybody else involved in the project and don’t forget to assign a project manager!
Interview and pre-qualify personnel for the actual installation. If the personnel are internal, require that they receive factory training prior to starting the install. If you don’t have the staff, ask the vendor.
Now you have planned, selected the right technology and you have your installation strategy, so you’re almost there. Only one minor, yet commonly overlooked detail remains…accessories. Do not “skimp” on accessories! Coaxial, antenna, surge protection, band-pass filters and proper sealing against the elements are just a few accessories to consider. Nothing will derail a communication network quicker than the wrong coaxial, wrong antenna, bad connection or the desire to save a few dollars on surge protection.
Lastly, make sure that whoever sold you the equipment is as committed to its success as you are. It is not unreasonable to expect a dedicated technical contact(s) that is available to assist you by phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Utilizing These Steps for Success
This article is meant to act as a template for assisting you in creating your ultimate communication network. The utilization of the above stepsor at least the concepts described withinwill dramatically increase the likelihood of creating a communication network that will meet the needs of your organization for years to come. Carefully studying and anticipating your network needs will help you to determine what type of equipment you should invest in. Don’t be coerced into being sold equipment or technology that works fine today but will be obsolete in just a few years. Knowing your real needs will allow you to strategically gather information, interview potential suitors and eliminate what is not right for you. It will also help prevent the financial mistake that could cost you the career you’ve worked so hard to build.
Be prepared to be shocked by what you learn. Know that you will find that a combination of many different technologies and manufacturers will likely be the right decision for your future system. Past beliefs will soon turn to misconceptions unless you take the time to research and select appropriately for your well-planned system. Share the responsibility of defining actual needs and what is most critical within your organization. Use references from your community and remember that your community might be the association member next door or a similar organization on the other side of the country.
As you move forward and have a greater understanding of your ideal network, you’ll have greater confidence in making your selections, overseeing the project and getting what you want. This confidence is a direct result of having invested time into identifying your goals, understanding your network needs and having a firm grip on the technologies and equipment available to you, how they enhance one another and how they can serve you for years to come.
The perfect network can only be achieved by utilizing everything that is available. By employing the above steps, a “hybrid” approach to networking can be created that not only meets current needs but establishes a basis and plan for future growth. This growth can and should be physical as well as spatial. It should meet your needs and the needs of your internal and external customers. Your communication network is a solution that considers budgetary constraints and technology advancements. It combines existing infrastructure with future hardware selection and deployment. It anticipates the unexpected and is prepared for reliable delivery, resource and process control and provides the security to protect your critical infrastructure.
About the Author: Dan Paladino is business development manager of utilities at FreeWave Technologies. He has more than 10 years of experience with wireless communication and control in utilities markets including electric power and metering solutions. Prior to joining FreeWave, Paladino was an independent consultant to organizations and providers using wireless technology to communicate in metering and sub-metering electric, water and natural gas environments.