Multi-Network: A New Requirement for C&I Data Collection

By John A. Smith, Datamatic Ltd.

Prior to the introduction of multi-vendor commercial and industrial (C&I) data collection systems, utilities were required to implement multiple systems to utilize multi-function C&I meters from different manufacturers. During the 1980s and ’90s, multi-vendor data collection systems emerged that enabled utilities to implement a single system to retrieve data from multiple meter suppliers and store that data in a single database.

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Today, utilities face a similar problem of implementing multiple systems and databases to take advantage of new and emerging communication network technologies available for collecting meter data.

Emerging Communication Technologies

Communication service and hardware providers are enabling new and enhanced communication technologies for metering—such as cellular digital voice and data, 802.11x (Wi-Fi), and Ethernet-TCP/IP. This gives utilities and meter service providers (MSP’s) better choices for many types of data transfers between devices. Wireless data capabilities are becoming more widely available and analog cellular services are being phased out. Newer digital cellular packet-switched data networks offer two-way, higher reliability, faster, as well as “always on” connections and at a lower cost than traditional telephone, cellular voice or two-way paging.

System Flexibility/Architecture

Current data retrieval systems need an open and expandable architecture so utilities, or their third-party agents, can develop real-time interfaces between the data retrieval system and the systems that need access to the data, such as billing, load forecasting, outage management and CIS/CRM systems. Traditionally, the utilities’ processing systems used custom file transfer programs to “push” the data at some periodic interval. Now, these systems require the option of real-time access to the data on-demand by “pulling” the data through direct open access via SQL, APIs or web services. The ideal system provides all these technologies/techniques since different systems have different data access requirements; the best technique for a report generator is not necessarily the most efficient interface for a billing or event notification system.

Prior to the introduction of multi-vendor data collection systems, utilities had to implement multiple systems to utilize multi-function C&I meters from different manufacturers.
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The retrieval system needs to support an architecture that allows for easy expansion both vertically and horizontally. The system needs the flexibility to be expanded vertically into multiple tiers for system throughput, division of labor, and the efficient utilization of available computing resources. In addition, the system must be expandable horizontally at each tier to support multiple users/clients, communication technologies/ports, and application processors, as well as provide for functional redundancy to eliminate single points of failure.

Along with these architectural requirements, the retrieval system must not only provide for the support of multiple meter protocols (multi-vendor), as has been accepted as a standard requirement for C&I data collection; but now the systems need to provide the capability to integrate the various wireless public and private communication networks, as well as Internet-based metering (multi-network). Just as multi-vendor was the key word for the 1980s and ’90s, multi-network is the key requirement for the next decade. Utilities will want and require the economics and ease of use of a single system that is open, expandable and supports multiple metering protocols and communication networks.

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Figure 1 (next page) shows a graphical representation of a multi-network/multi-vendor C&I data collection system.

Supporting Multiple Protocols and Communication Networks

Vendors are continually introducing new multi-function meters into the market; hence, the continued need for multi-vendor data retrieval support. But these new meters, as well as legacy meters, need to be supported over traditional telephone (POTS), the Internet, as well as the new wireless public networks—and all through a single user interface/system.

The cellular carriers are providing packet data (TCP/IP) communications within their next-generation digital wireless networks including GSM/GPRS and CDMA/1xRTT. These capabilities are providing new technologies that can be utilized for faster, cheaper and more frequent meter communications.

Also, over the next few years, cellular providers will migrate their data communications from analog packet data (CDPD) to the digital GPRS and 1xRTT standards. However, these new standards are forcing a fundamental architecture change in IP addressing techniques and communications with end point devices (meters). The challenge for future data retrieval systems will be in handling the new architecture of dynamically assigned IP addresses for the communication devices (meter modems).

Traditional outbound IP communications used a static IP address, which was assigned to the CDPD modem just like a phone number is assigned to a cell phone. For the new packet-switched digital standards (GPRS and 1xRTT), the cellular providers want the communication end-point devices (meter modems) to retrieve an IP address from the system whenever they want to communicate. This works fine for inbound “calls” since the host system does not need to know the IP address; however, the new process creates a problem for outbound “calls” since the host system does not know the IP address of the end device ahead of time.

The various communication equipment and modem manufacturers have developed solutions to this problem, but each has designed its own technique. Therefore, there is a need for the data collection system to support these multiple solutions. In some cases, this requires implementing another protocol layer, while in other cases the solution includes developing a seamless interface to a manufacturer’s back-end communication server application. No matter which technique is implemented, the key requirement is that it remains transparent to the data collection user and other any interfacing systems that require the meter data.

Going Forward

C&I data collection is being significantly impacted today when considering the:

  • energy market requirement for more timely data,
  • need to cost-effectively streamline data collection operations,
  • continued release of new metering products, and
  • emergence of new and more
  • efficient communication technologies.

The data collection systems to help the utility and meter service providers meet these challenges are now entering the marketplace. Another revolution is about to begin in C&I data collection.

John Smith is the vice president of operations & technology for the Datamatic Energy Systems division. Smith has extensive experience in the field of C&I data collection and management. Before joining Datamatic, Smith was vice president of Itron’s Energy Information Systems product group. He joined Itron as a result of the company’s merger with Utility Translation Systems, where he was a founding partner. While at UTS, he held the position of director of product development and chief technical officer. There, he oversaw the creation of C&I data collection, complex billing, web based presentation and analysis and interval data warehousing systems. Before joining UTS, Smith worked for 11 years at Westinghouse Electric Corporation as manager of product software. Smith has a degree in engineering from N.C. State University. John can be reached for comments and questions at

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