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Industrial Cellular Data Communications Challenges

Cellular Data Communication has revolutionized industrial data connectivity. Costs have been going down, speeds going up, and connectivity has become increasingly easier.
Nevertheless there has been ongoing challenges in cellular data communications including:

  • Network Obsolescence
  • System Complexity
  • Network Security

Network Obsolescence

Cellular Data Network have evolved from 1G, 2G, 3G, to 4G cellular technologies;  CDPD, GSM, 1XRTT, EVDO, HSPA, LTE….. As new technologies are developed; older network technologies are obsoleted.  Terminal equipment operating on obsoleted network technology has to be replaced.

The need for this constant cellular technology replacement or update may affect organizations and companies in different ways.  Sometimes company’s are unaware of the need to update and do not plans for this work until they have an outage.

Alternatively, in large scale system replacements, the replacement costs are daunting  due to field service costs. There may be limited or no budget for the upgrade. This can be the case when the original equipment was previously purchased on a capital budget. The operating company may have  acquired the obsoleted systems as part of a asset purchase or merger.  Frequently there may be no simple and inexpensive cellular technology upgrade path as the cellular hardware is  OEM and embedded in the equipment.

System Complexity

Cellular data network operation rely on third party operated networks.  Thus the actual data path is obscure.  The RF data path is unclear.

Cellular providers will change network topology and tower configuration without notifying subscribers. This can affect coverage and connectivity.  Troubleshooting can be difficult when the end user of the cellular network does not have direct technical support contact with network operator.

Modem Diversity

There are many manufacturers and models of  cellular modems; packaged and OEM (embedded).  There is no standard for RF and data connectors; packaging and for configuration software interfaces.  Even within the same manufacturer’s models there can differences in connectors; or subtle or extreme differences in the configuration software

These differences in modem operation can be a challenge in upgrade stage. Upgrade may be difficult especially if personnel is not properly equipped or trained. What would be simple modem upgrade at a remote site can be time consuming. The labor and mobilization costs can outweigh cost of the device. The RF, data, or power connectors can be different. A swap-out change can be time consuming where cables are must remade or modified; or users come return another day with proper equipment.  Slight modem configuration changes can cause system operational problems.

Network Security

As with IP based network; Cellular Data Security is always a concern. This is especially the case in use of Public IP Data Networks which is open to attack the potentially from anybody on the internet.  Network Security issues could be caused by  improperly configured of firewalls or Firmware bugs from the manufacturer.

Network security attacks can affect device operation, cause system outages and incur higher data traffic at best;  at worse  cyber-attacks on the equipment or infrastructure can damage, production losses, environmental damage, or injury or  loss of life.

Ben Yee, P.Eng 

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Bentek Systems has been involved in many aspects of SCADA Communications Products and Services since 1990.   Our work has included product and systems design; system integration;  onsite installations and troubleshooting. This blog reflects some of our experience in the industrial cellular data communications space.  Refer to following  for further information.