Wireless communication has become so ubiquitous, so quickly, that -- even for those of us who remember a world bereft of cell phones -- it’s now difficult to imagine life without them. Given the technological explosion of the nineties, those whippersnappers born after 1980 probably wonder why the world ever thought Captain Kirk’s little gold and black device had anything futuristic about it at all. Students at a college of engineering and computer science are sure to understand exactly how the technological explosion has impacted our world today.
To get a little perspective, let’s start by defining “wireless communication.” The term refers to any exchange of information between any two or more entities that are not connected by an electrical conductor; a wire. Although, in the vernacular, the term is most commonly associated with portable telecommunications devices -- cellphones -- humans are not required to be part of a wireless exchange. The transmitter of an electric garage door opener, for instance, and the dedicated receiver which operates the motor, are in wireless communication when the remote is clicked.
Radios are also wireless communications apparatuses, as are the multitude of devices we use that receive other types of radio waves, including global positioning systems (GPS). From the ridiculous to the sublime, from the foil-clad rabbit ears on every student’s TV to the Mars Exploration Rovers, appliances are picking up wireless communications all around us, all the time.
And "the grid?" It’s shorthand for the power grid which delivers electricity to end users, us, from suppliers. The generating stations which initially produce power, the high-voltage transmission lines which carry it over vast distances, the step-down substations that reduce the electricity to a usable current and the distribution lines running into our homes and workplaces all constitute the grid.
Power stations are typically remote from consumers. This is often because they’re located close to fuel sources, such as coal mines or hydro-electric-equipped dams, or -- in the case of nuclear power stations -- must be close to massive amounts of cooling water. Typically, they are also physically large, so it’s uneconomical to site them where land is expensive and taxes high. This means they need a complex and enormous transmission network to move the power to their wholesale customer, usually a local utility company, and thus into our homes and business premises.
Complex and enormous compositions have a habit of going wrong. The grid is no exception. At 3:05 PM on August 14, 2003, a power line failed in Ohio because trees growing close-by caused it to overheat. The line wasn’t even overloaded. Like dominos falling, elements of the grid dropped out of service across Ohio, blacking out Akron and Cleveland, before taking Detroit and Toronto. In short order parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York State, Maryland and Massachusetts were also affected. Most of New York City went dark at around 8 PM that night.
The blackout affected approximately ten million people in Ontario and 45 million people across eight U.S. states. An estimated 55 million people were unable to cool their homes and offices, run factories, secure buildings, refrigerate food, compute or commute. The largest blackout in the U.S.’ history crippled much of the northeast for two days, with an estimated economic impact topping $10 billion.
Could this happen again, and even more catastrophically? Aging equipment, geographical challenges and altering usage patterns all combine to put an outdated system under ever-increasing stress. In a study reported on by The Scientific American, Shlomo Havlin of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel, states that “Whenever you have such dependencies in the system, failure in one place leads to failure in another place, which cascades into collapse.”
No disruption would be good news for a country as reliant on electricity as the United States. “Collapse” could spell disaster. Conversely, a “smart grid” could spell deliverance. The term refers to technological advances which allow the grid to alert its operators to problems it senses for itself, allowing them to be fixed before they fail. This is, indeed, wireless communication; two-way, actionable interaction between end-user equipment, substations, the entire network of nodes and base stations, right back to the generation stations.
Even as the grid is benefiting the grid, so the uninterrupted grid benefits wireless communications. Cell towers continue to work, students’ TVs continue to tune into late-night chat shows, and garage doors everywhere continue to open.