Posted by: nialljmcshane | June 15, 2010

Technology Wars: Will Public Cellular Win in Smart Grid? Part Two

As noted in Part one of this article, I invited some of Smartsynch’s competitors and others within the industry to comment on the claims made by Stephen Johnston, Smartsynch’s CEO, concerning the case for utilities to choose public cellular networks over privately built and managed networks to implement the communications portion of their Smart Grid solutions.  Most declined to comment or told me that they were working on their own white papers to address these claims.

I did speak with Scott Propp at Motorola who believes that we will see a network of networks with technologies being selected based on very specific topologies since each technology will work best in a particular environment.  Propp feels that public cellular is very attractive for pilots because utilities can implement a small scale AMI solution to examine the impact on consumers and business processes but that when they need to scale up, the utilities will look at all technologies that are available to them.  A major issue that he sees arising between utilities and public carriers is the issue of service level agreements.  In his experience negotiations over such agreements are difficult.

I also spoke with Tom Hulsebosch at West Monroe Partners, a Chicago based consulting firm, who stated:

It is WMP’s opinion that typical smart grid communication solutions will be a combination of technologies. There are many things that a utility must consider when they are deciding on an AMI communication technology, including:

  1. What applications will be supported (e.g. Electric/Water/Gas Metering, Direct Load Control (DLC), Home Area Network (HAN), Distribution Automation (DA)/Sensors)?
  2. What are the latency and protocol requirements of the applications ?
  3. What is the meter/device density and  coverage Issues for the projected deployment?
  4. What does the utility currently have in their network?

Mesh solutions can provide great coverage in urban and suburban areas and their coverage/capacity can be customized for any area or application by adding more relays and collectors.  Yet, they are challenged to provide complete coverage in rural applications when the meter density does not support enough mesh paths from the meters to the AMI collectors.  Mesh systems are not typically going to be deployed by IOUs as their only AMI solution due to coverage challenges in the rural areas.  One of the advantages of the Mesh solution is that they can be optimized to meet the coverage and application needs of the utilities and there are multiple options to support water, gas, and electric meters.

The commercial carrier solutions have a couple of key advantages that make them a very interesting solution for many deployments due to their relatively low latency, good bandwidth, no requirement for a high meter/device density.  Today we are seeing utilities using commercial carrier based AMI solutions for deployment of C&I smart meters or strategic deployment of Smart Meters for hard to read meters or selectively for customers requesting HAN technologies and TOU rates.  We expect that these scenarios will continue, especially for utilities that have deployed AMR solutions recently or AMI solutions that don’t have HAN capability or the bandwidth to support the new service offerings.  Utilities also need to consider that many  commercial carrier solutions can also find themselves challenged when they need to provide coverage in very rural areas and in indoor locations like meter closets.  Many commercial carriers’ solutions don’t have an ability to repeat the signal through a neighboring meter which will increase the number of stranded devices that cannot be serviced by the commercial carrier coverage location.  There are limited cost effective ways to extend a commercial carrier’s coverage to meet the coverage requirement of a utility.  Another consideration is if the utility wants to cover gas and water meters with the AMI solution which require very low power communication solutions on these meters.

Other key AMI solutions include tower based solutions that use private licensed frequencies and power line carrier (PLC). The tower based solutions typically have the advantage of higher power and cleaner spectrum leading to fewer AMI backhaul locations and the ability to support hard to reach devices (water meters, in building meter closets, basement meters) and low density applications (rural).  Yet, the tower based solutions do require the creation of new towers (increased capital) or using existing commercial towers (increased O&M).  PLC solutions have been used in rural applications successfully for a long time and really represent some of the first successful AMI solutions deployed by utilities.  The PLC based solution is typically the solution of choice for the Electric Cooperatives that have a need for covering very low density areas where mesh and commercial carrier based solutions struggle to meet the needs of the utility.

At WMP, we do not see any one type of solution being able to meet the needs of all utilities.  We believe that the industry will continue to see a mix of different AMI solutions deployed in the utility market place for the foreseeable future.

I see some support for Smartsynch’s view in these comments but they fall short of a full endorsement.  WMP’s view is congruent with what Rick Thompson, President of Greentech Media stated in his opening remarks to the Networked Grid conference; “Despite the focus on physical layer networking ‘religion’ arguments, they are misguiding the industry, said Thompson. ‘It’s not going to be one or the other; it’s going to be all of them,’ depending on applications and service area requirements.”

Reader comments both here on the blog and in various LinkedIn fora support this view of a non-homogeneous technology future for the Smart Grid.  While some readers felt that Smartsynch made a compelling case, others cited personal experience of the unreliability of cellular in rural areas and argued for mesh technologies. Several readers noted that one technology cannot cover all topologies and requirements and that in all probability multiple solutions will be deployed even within a single service area.  It was noted that even if public cellular is used for meter data collection, utilities may still wish to maintain their existing investments in fiber or other networks for substation automation and may leverage those networks for expanded distribution automation which has stricter latency requirements than meter data.  Mixed technology networks were also suggested as possible AMI solutions with mesh or other technologies being used for data collection and the data then being aggregated and backhauled over cellular as is done by several utilities today.  Still others suggested that cellular technologies on private networks were the way to go.  And, of course, readers noted that the picture changes for gas and water meters where the meter cannot tap into the power supply as with electric meters.  Readers also noted that the underlying meter data are agnostic to the technology that is used to transport the data, as are the applications that act upon the data.

Undoubtedly, the debate will continue over which technologies are best suited to the communications requirements of the Smart Grid but, ultimately, the success or failure of an individual utility’s Smart Grid deployment and indeed the broader Smart Grid initiative will depend less on the particular technologies that are selected for the physical network and more on the development of applications, the so-called Soft Grid, that ride on top of that network and deliver meaningful value to both utilities and consumers.  Stephen Johnston and Smartsynch make a compelling case for why public cellular networks need to be seriously considered by any utility that is embarking on Smart Grid deployment but those utilities also need to consider the broader ecosystem in which their eventual network selection will operate.  As I have noted in earlier articles, the development of standards for interoperability between utilities and between vendors within a given utility, and the integration of applications into an overall business process framework that enables services that we cannot even imagine today, are the key factors that will lead to success.



  1. How about using the internet ?!

    • Danilo, can you elaborate on this? IP is a protocol, not a physical transport layer. It can be implemented over mesh, cellular, powerline, or many other transport technologies. I assume that you are referring to using an existing internet connection to the home, which could be DSL, Cable, or some wireless technology. The problem with that approach is that it pre-supposes that the consumer has an internet connection which will not be true in all cases.

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