Smashing the Smart Grid. Hackers target ZigBee.

It’s been a good week for scare stories about Smart Energy.  Whilst they’ve predictably generated some excellent headlines (and I can’t resist joining in), the facts behind them are very important.  We’re rushing into a global energy monitoring and delivery system with little understanding of whether or not it is secure.

What we can predict is that as soon as Smart Meters are deployed, the first impulse of every neighbourhood hacker will be to take control of their school or local government’s heating and air conditioning, just to prove they can.  At one level, that’s a local annoyance.  If it affects our utility bills it becomes more than an annoyance.  And if it were co-ordinated by someone with a more malicious intent, then turning everything on at a peak time would take the grid down.   So it’s important that we make sure it is as secure as possible.

That makes the two pieces of news this week a lot more important than just providing the excuse for a good headline.  The first announcement was that the Information Trust Institute at the University of Illinois has been granted $18.8 million for a five year research project on securing the Smart Grid.  The second piece of good news is the release of a set of ZigBee hacking tools by Joshua Wright at ToorCon11.  These will let developers discover what vulnerabilities exist within the ZigBee standard, which is vitally important if it wants to be selected for use in Smart Meters.  Josh describes his work as “will hack for SUSHI“.  As far as I know he’s not received any sushi for his efforts, let alone an $18.8 million grant.  If the Government is serious about the security of the energy supply, they should consider diverting some of that funding in his direction. 

So why should we be worried…?

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Smart Meters and Stupid Governments – Time for Dedicated Spectrum

Are our governments really serious about Smart Metering, or are they just throwing money away as a political gesture?  Increasingly it looks as if it’s the latter.  Barack Obama just made a headline announcement that the U.S. Government is prepared to waste $3.4 billion putting smart meters into 13% of U.S. homes.  The reason for my cynicism is a lack of standards, particularly with respect to the choice of a wireless specification to link the meters with each other and to appliances around the home.  The current choices are not based on any understanding of technology, rather than lobbying by companies desperate for funding.  As a result, there’s a strong chance that these meters will not work.

I was at the Wireless Congress in Munich last week and listened to at least four different wireless standards explain why they’re each the best choice for smart meters.  Not one of them was really convincing.  Most had slick marketing presentations, but underneath, there are some very good technical reasons as to why NONE of the current pretenders are the correct one to choose if we really want smart energy to work. 

The critical problem is the choice of the 2.4GHz frequency band, which is where most of the contenders operate.  Ten years ago that portion of spectrum, known as an Industrial Scientific and Medical band (ISM) was virtually empty.   Microwave ovens used it, but only for a few minutes each day.  Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee were all still dreams.  It was like a freeway built before cars arrived.  Today it is already congested and each new evolution of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi eat up even more of it.  In another ten years, which is before the Smart Meter rollouts will even have been completed, it is likely to be at a standstill. 

Smart Metering is an initiative that will cost billions of euros / dollars to install and which needs to continue to work for a lifespan of twenty or more years.  All of the prospective wireless technologies being considered for use in Smart Meters operate in open frequency bands that are likely to be heavily congested before the smart meter installation program is even started.  To use this spectrum for something as critical as smart metering is folly.

If Smart Metering is going to provide benefits, it deserves its own wireless spectrum and standard.  It’s not too late for regulators to set aside spectrum and for standards bodies to get together to produce an optimal standard.  If they don’t, we risk wasting trillions of dollars and failing to achieve any reduction in energy consumption.

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Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth – battle to the death?

The media lapped up the recent press release from the Wi-Fi Alliance, announcing the birth of Wi-Fi Direct.  Almost to a man, they decided once again that it would kill Bluetooth.  I suspect that Bluetooth will prove to have something in common with Mark Twain, being able to sit back and calmly repeat that “the report of my death is an exaggeration”.

For many of the reports, that analysis seems to be based on little more than the relative number of press releases that the two organisations send out.  For some reason known only to itself, the Bluetooth SIG is remarkably reticent about publicising its technology, preferring to sit quietly on its laurels of shipments of over a billion chips per year (1,050 million in 2008 – IMS).  Wi-Fi tends to be more vociferous about its plans, possibly stung by the fact that it manages to ship only just over a third of that (387 million in 2008 – Instat).  As is often the case with young pretenders, noise can be rather more noticeable than actions.  (Incidentally, no other short range standard gets within an order of magnitude of the lower of these figures.)

A few articles dug down a bit more into the technology itself, and came to less of a conclusion as a result.  None of them thought about what really matters, which is what the user experience will look like.  So let’s do exactly that…

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Bluetooth low energy – the Momentum Builds

It’s been a good week for Bluetooth low energy.  At times it’s felt like a long, slow path since it was first announced as Wibree in October 2006, but that feeling is changing as the standard is coming to completion.  This week saw the first Bluetooth low energy conference take place in Munich where chips vendors were showing off demos, whilst on the other side of the world, at the ARM Techcon in Santa Clara, there were more live demonstrations of the technology.

The mood of the industry has become increasingly upbeat.  It was noticeable in Munich that a significant number of companies have moved from cautious interest to being serious about starting to deploy it.  The questions that they are asking have changed to the practical ones of qualification and access to test equipment.  That change in mood was reinforced by the Bluetooth SIG announcing that the specification is on course to be released this December.  

The Bluetooth low energy standard can be confusing at first.  Although it carries the name Bluetooth, it is a completely new radio with a completely new protocol stack on top of it.   It has been designed from scratch to allow developers to add connectivity to products that only want to send small pieces of data on an irregular basis, but with such low power consumption that it can run on coin cells.  The companies attending the Conference in Munich have understood that difference and are keen to exploit the new products and service models that Bluetooth low energy offers. 

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We need a Manifesto for Consumer Health and Wellness

At the Continua Health Alliance summit in Boston this week, most of the speakers are talking enthusiastically about the amount of Government momentum for reform of the healthcare system.  Keynote speakers from all areas of the medical industry are telling us how things will change.

It’s not a new message, albeit it has been revitalised by the prospect of the Obama billions.  The physicians believe that they can heal themselves, or at least the system they work in.  So it came as a breath of fresh air to see a posting that popped into my inbox from Joe Macaluso on Real Health Reform.  It argues that the only way we will see any real reform is if it’s done by patients, without the support of Congress or the medical industry.

Over in Europe, the EU is running a debate on Consumers and Health, asking for contributions to a seminar in Brussels at the end of the month.  I’d been thinking about this for some time and had come to the conclusion that the most useful thing that the EU commission could do would be to look at how to change the regulatory playing field.  That’s necessary to let patient-based groups start to take healthcare and even prescribing into their own hands.  To achieve that I think we need a Manifesto for Consumer Health, that provides a safe environment for disruptive developments.  By coincidence I’d just finished writing my thoughts on that, which I was posting to the EU Consumers and Health site as Joe’s mail came in.  After reading Joe’s post, I’ve added a poll asking “Whether you believe that healthcare reform needs to be driven by patients, rather than medics or legislators?”  Please go and vote – I’ll post the result in a later blog.

So why do I think we need a manifesto..? 

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Will you still text me, will you connect me, when I’m sixty four?

Now that the networks are growing out of their teens, is it time for them to think about a market they’ve largely ignored?  Given the current pain that they are suffering from the youth segment’s bandwidth-obese usage of their “eat all you can consume” data plans, you’d think that they might want attract a target audience that offers the prospect of a more reliable revenue stream. 

There’s an important conference coming up in London on 26th October that promises to address the issues that have limited success so far – Mobile Phones for the Senior Market.  It’s important because there are some fundamental lessons to be learned and things that need to be changed if the networks are to approach the older generation with the same degree of attention that they currently lavishing on their twenty-something users.  The resulting challenges need to be addressed, not just by the networks, but also by product designers and retailers. 

The mobile phone business is now the largest volume segment of the consumer goods industry.  Despite that achievement, it is an industry that is still remarkably young.  It’s debatable whether it is actually mature enough to have addressed real segmentation yet – instead it’s still at the stage of development where it tends to concentrate most on customers of its own age – late teens.   That could be a costly mistake.  By ignoring the specific needs of older users, the mobile industry is missing a major market.

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