M2M Testing Times for UK Utilities

smart home

by Angus Panton, SQS Group Ltd.

The utilities sector is in the vanguard of consumer machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, but the scale and pace of change are challenging.

When consumer technology giant Apple made its recent move into smarter homes with its HomeKit announcement, you knew something major was afoot.

The ability to control devices such as thermostats from a smartphone will be big business, with Apple, Google and others’ unleashing a flood of apps for the utilities market.

By 2023, two-thirds of the 30 billion smart, wirelessly connected devices in homes and industry worldwide will be for utilities, recent research by Analysys Mason shows.

Already, markets such as the U.K. are seeing the introduction of remote and automatic central heating controls run from smart mobile devices, enabling consumers to manage their energy costs using Web-based technology that has driven so much innovation and convenience in other areas such as mobile commerce and social media.

For energy suppliers, empowering consumers to keep on top of their consumption using smart devices rapidly is becoming a differentiator in the largely commodity-based utilities market and can provide suppliers with a potential goldmine of marketing, consumer data, operational opportunities and escalating revenues.

Three players in computerized thermostats are active in the U.K.: Hive, owned by energy giant British Gas; the Google subsidiary Nest Labs; and German firm tado.

Each uses mobile device apps to simplify running home central heating from anywhere.

Functions include automatic response to weather patterns; firing up the heating from a location app when a resident is heading home; and learning from a householder’s manual tweaks to replicate them automatically. Meanwhile, information technology (IT) and communication giants AT&T Inc. and IBM this year formed an alliance to develop M2M systems with a focus on utilities.

For society, the potential prize is huge in cutting and controlling energy consumption.

British Gas estimates, for example, that as many as 7.8 million U.K. homes are being heated annually when no one is home.

According to the U.K. Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem), residents spend on average 1,342 pounds ($2,240) annually on energy, with heating being responsible for more than 60 percent of the bill.

Evidence of savings comes from Nest Learning Thermostat customers in the U.S. who are experiencing average savings of 20 percent on heating and cooling bills.

Now the company is targeting U.K. customers with similar savings opportunities.

Underpinning this new wave of home energy technology is M2M communications amid the Internet of Things (IoT), which poses technological and regulatory challenges from spectrum allocation to reliability and security.

As such, energy suppliers’ involvement carries risk.

Should the security be breached or the installation fail to fulfill claims for its performance, then consumers might look elsewhere for their services.

The pace of smart technologies’ growth in energy will depend on combining great functionality with ease of use and high levels of security.

Naturally, companies want assurance that applications they offer to the market will work as advertised, and this technology poses particular challenges, given the interconnection issues across networks, as with any complex IT system.

Scaling up for Smart Meters

Smart meter rollouts are a powerful spur to M2M growth in the energy sector, and governments are pressing for speedy implementations.

Along with consumers’ security sensitivities, the size of the program-from the immense installation task to the meter’s operation-carries huge potential for positive or negative impact on consumer acceptance of smart connected devices.

In the U.K., replacing 53 million conventional domestic power and gas meters in some 30 million premises by 2020 will be Britain’s biggest home energy technology change for more than 40 years.

A smart decision has been made in the U.K.: A license to manage the communications infrastructure for the Smart Metering Implementation Programme has been granted to the Data and Communications Co (DCC).

But there is trepidation within the energy industry. For example, as Neil Pennington, smart program director at energy firm RWE npower, said recently during an industry seminar, “Testing must be robust-end-to-end across industry parties and the DCC and in live situations.

“If interoperability is not consistent and systems and processes not failsafe, it risks undermining consumer confidence.”

In written evidence to the government’s Energy and Climate Change Committee, RWE npower also stated, “Enduring technical, end-to-end design needs to be established quickly to generate certainty and ensure that equipment is developed and manufactured to provide the industry with the capability to provide 100% coverage, in a consistent and timely manner.”

The imperative to test rigorously and promptly is clear, and it applies to the M2M cascade that almost certainly will follow.

Large energy suppliers must be ready for DCC interface testing in autumn 2015.

They have huge rollout profiles that will run to installing tens of thousands of meters a week to meet the 2020 deadline.

Small energy suppliers, too, will need to interface with the DCC by the 2020 deadline.

Even before smart metering is in play, the installation program carries significant risk.

The need to enter homes increases reputational risks from poor delivery.

According to consultant Ernst & Young, “With so little upside, the energy supplier is looking carefully at the costs and risks.”

Quality to the Fore

Installation will be the first big data challenge in the smart metering program.

The task will involve upgrades in utilities’ IT, including changes in enterprise resource planning systems, asset management, job scheduling and handheld devices.

Interfaces and back-end systems will have to be tested to ensure they can handle the load as it increases through rollout.

Much complex integration and operation acceptance testing will be required and will need careful management.

Software quality is playing an ever more important role in developing customer value, and the pace of change in the energy sector puts such quality into sharp relief.

For companies’ facing such major and looming deadlines, testing must be incorporated early in a project life cycle because the cost and delays associated with addressing defects found later in the project will be high.

Adrian Tuck, vice chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, which develops M2M standards, counsels the energy sector to prepare for technology-driven disruption.

“I believe we are about to go through a revolution in the energy space every bit as big as the telecom revolution,” Tuck said.

Energy sector business strategists will differ in their interpretations of what is needed for success in a digital utility market.

But crucial requirements for the industry and its customers will be assured resilience and reliability in the technologies.

And customer experience needs to be assessed equally rigorously because ease of use can be as potent in influencing perceptions as sound performance.

The importance of assured performance and usability in connected devices to the development of the energy industry is a responsibility to which the testing industry is keenly sensitive.

The IoT offers energy firms an opportunity to connect better with its customers.

For the energy sector, confidence in smart, connected technology will be the fuel it needs to achieve and benefit from the pace of change the market will demand.

Tested and Tried-Example of Quality in Action

A U.K. utility venturing into the remote energy control market with a new device needed confidence that the product would enhance the utility’s reputation by fulfilling customer expectations with no room for shortfalls.

The company needed to be assured that the device was reliable, easy to operate and a sound reflection of its commitment to customers.

The utility selected SQS as an independent quality partner to provide expert advice based on its utilities sector experience and to manage the governance of testing.

Challenges. The primary requirement was assurance that the device enhanced the utility brand and minimized the risk of damage to its reputation.

Unflawed continuity was crucial between the branding on the device and the website via which customers would control it.

Solution. From the outset, SQS provided comprehensive reporting via a quality barometer, which provided clarity at any given stage in the development that the company’s requirements were being met.

Testing included:

  • Early exploratory testing to ensure the system operation was intuitive and the device was easy to use;
  • Engaging the utility closely during the peak simulation exercise with the IT infrastructure architect and database administrators at test runs;
  • Repeat testing on a range of browsers along with testing on different screens. Tests encompassed usability and performance;
  • Manual testing on the prototype version to prevent incorrect images or missed content. This decision reflected the intense need to ensure all the utility’s aims were met, particularly its expectations for the device’s usability and consistent branding; and
  • Nonfunctional tests, which included failover and disaster recovery with a top priority to ensure user settings were preserved in either instance.

The utility had confidence that the device would provide customers with a reliable, resilient service and be a first-rate representation of the company.

Angus Panton is director of power and communications at software quality specialist SQS Group Ltd.

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