WiFi, WiMAX and Wi You Should Care

Steven Brown, editor in chief

I’m not an automation engineer, not a systems integrator, not an IT director. I doubt I’ll ever be put in charge of implementing a SCADA system or assigned to oversee an AMR project. Put me in front of a rack of substation communications equipment, and I’m liable to try to toast a piece of bread in it.

I’m a journalist. When I sit down to edit or write an article about substation automation or automatic meter reading, I rely on a lot of background research and the generous help of patient power industry experts. So, it was a nice change of pace for me when it came time to work on this issue’s feature on wireless communications. This was a subject area where I could draw on some real-life, hands-on experience. You see, I recently became the proud owner of a new laptop computer with all the modern bells and whistles. I’ve finally entered the wireless world. But before I could bring myself to pull the trigger on that purchase, I did some fairly exhaustive research on wireless cards, routers and networks.

Time was when you shopped for a new computer, processor speed was your main concern. Today, most people probably don’t spend nearly as much time worrying about the difference between a 1.73-GHz processor and a 1.86-GHz processor as they do worrying about whether they want the wireless card with 802.11a, b or g functionality. And what about the integrated Bluetooth card? Yep, better throw that in there, too. As a society, we’ve become averse to wires, cables and anything else that might keep us tethered to a desk. It’s an interesting play on words that as we’ve become more “Wired!” we’re also becoming increasingly wire-less.

Now, with my shiny new laptop, with its integrated 802.11b/g wireless card, I can sit at my local Fourbucks coffee shop, sip a steamin’ hot cup of something overpriced and pretentious, and work wirelessly-at broadband speeds no less! Last night, I found that my wireless router’s signal will stretch at least as far as my garage with no discernible signal degradation. I have yet to come up with good reasons why I would need to connect to the Internet at a coffee shop or in my garage, but the point is, I can. The capability is there; the application of that capability will come in time.

In much the same way, electric utilities might not yet fully understand the important role wireless technologies like WiFi, WiMAX and even Bluetooth can play in their own operations. But they will, and soon.

Utilities are no strangers to the use of wireless technology. They’ve been using private radio networks and public cellular signals to carry AMR data and simple field work orders for some time, but there’s a whole new world of wireless applications out there for electric, gas and water utilities. Take some time to read the piece on wireless technologies written by Jai Belagur and Thomas Lebakken, and download the new UTC paper mentioned on Page 8. If you’re anything like I was when I started researching the wonders of WiFi for my own purposes, you’re going to get pretty excited about the possibilities.

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