Public Cellular is Unifying Field for Modern Grid Operations

by Alex Brisbourne, Kore Telematics

The smart grid has been a slow road to adoption, much slower than expected and for unexpected reasons. Yes, there has been some strong smart metering momentum, but the first deployments exposed a customer relations risk.

California residents in particular have voiced their opposition to smart metering efforts. In addition, the government stimulus had the opposite of its intended effect, bringing about a significant slowdown to adoption as many scrambled to realign their business models to get a piece of the funding.

Cellular carriers likewise are positioning their wireless networks as a way to manage large-volume data movement across the utility grid.

These proclamations must be qualified to an extent, but public cellular backhaul is emerging as an efficient, reliable and ubiquitous way to modernize grid operations from advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) deployment to demand response integration, even extending to asset management and fleet operations.

The big question for the market, however, is how wireless carriers can become a credible part of the solution. Some utility executives have said that leaving such critical matters as connectivity in the hands of carriers does not meet their strategic goals.

This perspective is not necessarily helped when those same carriers might view the market as a way to secure the profitable BlackBerry business of those same customers.

Add in that utilities are rewarded by state regulators based on capital expenditures, not operating expenditures, and a case against cellular could get even stronger.

This, however, overlooks the obvious value of immediate availability, coverage, cost efficiency and security that cellular networks can deliver instantly.

The smart grid infrastructure can seem as complicated as Einsteinian physics, but just as Albert Einstein sought a unifying theory to explain how the universe functions, it seems apt to think of machine-to-machine (M2M) connectivity powered by public cellular networks as a unified field for data transport in the utility grid. There is far more to M2M than automated metering.

Cellular was used initially to eliminate door-to-door meter reading. M2M also can handle multiple functions at once: improvements in billing and service management, device deployment into more secure locations, asset control, and in-field service diagnostics and reliability.

The total M2M footprint is much bigger and potentially more valuable than at first it appears.

To be more specific, this is not to suggest that cellular M2M is the be-all, end-all means to transmit data across an Internet Protocol (IP)-enabled energy grid. Private mesh networks or hard-wired solutions will be the best technical or economic option in plenty of situations. Rather, it is to point out that at the most basic level, most smart grid applications are examples of remote data and asset management–the bread and butter for M2M technology.

Life Cycle, Spectrum Considerations

An active area of smart grid debate is figuring the best way to bring about high-volume, two-way communication for long-term applications.

Utility applications will be in service a long time and must be extremely reliable over the entire lifespan. They also must be fiscally tenable for utilities and consumers throughout these extended life cycles.

In addition, some pundits have raised questions about spectrum availability for utility applications, given the huge cellular footprint the utility grid represents.

The pipe-clogging consumer applications are moving to 4G networks, and existing 2G and 3G stand out as a means to support efficiently even the most data-heavy metering and home automation systems in capacity and cost point. Using such a blend virtually renders life cycle concerns moot.

The Importance of Platforms

The M2M equation is more than plugging in a SIM card and signing a commercial wireless data plan. Mission-critical utility applications bring requirements that go beyond basic connectivity.

If M2M is being deployed specifically to help a utility company make or save money, it must work 24/7, everywhere, every time.

Customers need a seamless front-end interface that can be disseminated across business users. There is a huge degree of technology integration involved in start-up, from establishing virtual private networks and complicated IP-address management schemes to speedy device certification.

Network redundancies and fiscal accountability are must-haves. For example, if a device has gone rogue and is connecting to the network when it shouldn’t, the utility needs to know before that device runs up exorbitant airtime costs against the bottom line.

If M2M is going to work on an exacting basis for utility applications, it almost certainly will require multiple forms of connectivity. Satellite services in outlying areas could blend with cellular services, and competing cellular technologies also must be available within the M2M network platform to ensure ubiquitous connectivity in every terrestrial pocket a device or home is located.

Take, for example, home automation and demand response services. If a utility provides such a service, it must know absolutely and unequivocally that it will be able to access the energy-using appliances in that home.

It must know that the network will connect regardless of location, time or unforeseen external events. Only a multitechnology connectivity package can provide this level of assurance, and such a convergence holds the key to a more compelling M2M solution that readily can be consumed by utility enterprises.

Stakeholders’ concerns about carriers’ being part of the solution are not completely unfounded, but this dynamic is changing as each understands the other more completely.

Carrier business models traditionally have not been synched with the needs of utility operations, but there are specialized network operators that have been handling M2M connections since it was a nascent industry. This is where the conversation should center.

Parting Thoughts

The coming adoption of hybrid electric vehicles (EVs) will put new pressure on today’s power grids and force utilities into more wholesale changes toward dynamic, time-based pricing and smart metering.

Companies must build a recharging and payment infrastructure and a way to account for filling up during peak demand. Beyond the capital expenditure requirements, ongoing operations become a question of remote asset management, with the added twist of payment processing.

If one looks at the recent growth curve for cellular-based remote transaction processing (i.e., parking meters, portable credit card devices), one can see the multitasking value of M2M in this context.

Some 3,000 electric utilities are regulated by 50 public utility commissions across the United States, so it is foolhardy to predict exactly how technologies will evolve to bring about full-scale grid modernization.

Business models remain under development, and utilities, consumers and technology providers must realize financial benefits if the smart grid will succeed.

Efforts will converge upon providing consumers with actionable information about their energy consumption delivered in real time to an IP address.

The challenge today is making value-adding decisions that can support such a vision long term.


Alex Brisbourne has been president and chief operating officer of Kore Telematics Inc. since its inception in 2003. He has more than 20 years of experience in wireless, enterprise and fixed-line telecom industries.


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