By Steven M. Brown, Senior Associate Editor
For at least a half century, the promise of “the home of the future” has dangled just outside the realm of practical reality-and quite a ways beyond the average consumer’s reach. In the popularly mythologized home of the future, all sorts of smart devices are automated, interconnected and ready to be controlled remotely by busy digital-age homeowners. Any number of providers would be able to provide valuable services through residential gateways mounted within (or on top of, or on the side of) this mostly theoretical home of the future.
Generally speaking, though, smart devices and home gateways have been neither widely available nor widely sought after. Despite optimistic outlooks from some research firms (Parks Associates, for example, predicted in 2001 that the market for residential gateways would grow from 8.6 million units in 2001 to more than 33 million units in 2005), the home of the future has remained just that-a home “of the future,” not of the present.
So what has been the hold-up? Certainly, the technology is available to interconnect devices within the home, and to provide the link, or “gateway,” into and out of the home for service providers. Why, then, aren’t we all enjoying the luxuries of Jetsons-style automated homes?
Hafez Panju, director of marketing for IntraCoastal System Engineering Corp., told Utility Automation that several interrelated factors have held back the market for gateway devices. IntraCoastal, a provider of powerline communication solutions, has been active in foreign markets for several years, but has entered the U.S. market only recently.
Panju believes that high cost, a lack of focus on specific applications, and, quite simply, misdirected marketing efforts have stymied the market penetration of gateway devices. The average residential consumer, Panju said, is not likely to go out and purchase an expensive gateway device to interconnect yet-to-be-released smart devices within his or her home.
“We feel that the residential gateway market at this time is simply not there,” Panju said. “We’re really not focusing on the residential aspect of the gateway concept.”
Instead of a residential gateway, then, IntraCoastal has focused on a utility-specific gateway or “Utility Access Device,” which it markets directly to electric utilities. And, perhaps more importantly, IntraCoastal has focused intently on providing certain practical applications through the device. “Having technology is important,” Panju said. “But technology does not drive the market-applications drive the market.”
With that philosophy in mind, IntraCoastal gained its first U.S. customer-Washington state’s Mason County Public Utility District 3 (PUD3)-by supplying its Utility Access Device to meet a certain need. Although IntraCoastal’s device is capable of facilitating a number of additional services (see Figure 1), for now, Mason County is using it specifically for automatic meter reading (AMR).
IntraCoastal’s Utility Access Device is designed so that it can work on a one device per house basis, but the implementation at Mason County PUD3 has the device working on a one-to-many basis. To understand how this works, picture all the homes that are connected to an individual transformer as forming sort of a local-area network. The access device is placed on the outside of one house-usually somewhere near the electric meter. Then, using existing powerlines, the device is able to communicate with all other houses serviced from that particular transformer. The device collects information from all the meters within this network, then it communicates the data back to Mason County PUD3 via fiber optics. (The device also can communicate via cable, DSL, satellite or RF.)
Mason County PUD3 is one of 14 rural non-profit, locally owned utilities in Washington state that form the Northwest Open Access Network Consortium (NoaNet). The members of the NoaNet consortium have licensed Bonneville Power Administration’s fiber optic backbone and plan to lay fiber directly to more than 5 million of their end-users. The fiber fulfills one of NoaNet’s primary goals: ensuring that residences of rural America are not left behind in technological advancements.
The fiber also makes it possible for Mason County PUD3 to have two-way communications with the Utility Access Devices it has recently installed at customers’ homes. The installation at Mason County is still in the pilot stage, but the utility is reportedly pleased with what the access device is able to do now-and with its potential to provide more services in the future.
Jeff Skinner, telecommunications engineer for Mason County PUD3, said the device was exactly the solution Mason County had been seeking. “IntraCoastal’s solution meets our current automatic meter reading requirements and allows for future growth, while still maintaining a reasonable cost per point,” Skinner said.
Panju said that while Mason County is currently using the gateway devices strictly for AMR, IntraCoastal intends to use the installation to demonstrate the energy conservation/load management capabilities that are also made possible through the devices. He said that a utility like Mason County PUD3 could use the devices in the future to remotely control high energy usage devices such as water heaters to provide relief in the event of supply/demand imbalances.
As utilities attempt to differentiate themselves from one another and become more than just commodity providers, the utility gateway can provide the springboard for additional services. In the future, IntraCoastal’s gateway device, and others of its ilk (see Table 1 for a partial list of utility-focused gateway devices), can be used as a front-end to facilitate demand-side management or demand response programs, high-speed Internet access, home security, remote control of home lighting, and, someday, even the interconnection and automation of everyday household devices.
Maybe George and Jane Jetson’s automated home of the future isn’t so far out of reach after all. Maybe it’s just a matter of properly focusing and marketing existing gateway technologies today to prepare for the possibilities of tomorrow.