Last month, Cisco Systems announced a partnership with Grid Net, a smart meter company that employs Wi-Max technology to send data about electricity usage back to utility companies. Grid Net has also partnered with ClearWire, Motorola, Intel, and General Electric. With the investment from Cisco, Grid Net is poised to become the leader in smart meters in America. The move by Cisco highlights a recent recommendation of the National Broadband Plan released last week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC): using high-speed connectivity to create a “smart grid” that allows for consumers to obtain better costs and usage information for their electricity and other utilities.
At the same time GE announced the first U.S. smart-grid pilot programfor 6 million users that will incorporate Wi-MAX technology with Consumers Energy in Michigan. Using Wi-MAX and GE smart meters, the goal of the pilot is to demonstrate how real-time wireless communications between meters in the home and the utility’s network management and control systems can improve efficiency and reliability of electricity transmission.
Typically, the residential electricity network can be divided in three parts: the transmission network, the distribution network and the end user network, the latter being the house. They are represented respectively by Wide Area Networks (WAN), Neighbor Area Networks (NAN) and Home Automation Networks (HAN). While HAN is for short distances like in a house, distances increase considerably on the other two networks. That’s why some standards like Wi-Fi or ZIgbee designed for small ranges could be used in communication management in the HAN but seem not the best suited for others networks.
On the other hand, the choice of building a wireless network appears efficient considering the U.S grid characteristics. Indeed a lot of countries like France have preferred the terrestrial wireline connectivity thanks to technologies like PCL. This technology allows the addition of a weak intensity communication signal on the electric flow in cables. However these signals are not able to go through the nodes on the network and require more connecting wires. In France this is not really a problem because on average 49 houses are connected to the same node. But in the USA this ratio strongly decreases, like in California where it reaches 7 houses per node. In this case the wireless becomes more affordable.
Wimax vs Long Term Evolution (LTE) and others…
Thanks to its coverage capacity, Wi-MAX is becoming a potential actor for broadband communication. Mobile WiMAX also has the advantage of being more reliable and secure than “pure” unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi. Wi-MAX can also count on support from leading companies like GE, Intel, Sprint Nextel, Clearwire, Motorola, Samsung and Google, among others. In the meantime, WiMAX-based smart meters are already available in the U.S. For instance, GE, in association with Intel and using Grid Net software, has built one of the first WiMAX-based smart meters. Most importantly, Wi-MAX will enable carriers, utility companies and other key players to build open-standards based smart meters. Ultimately, through WiMAX, third parties will be able to develop many applications and devices, helping to reduce cost. With WiMAX chipsets currently running about $36, some observers believe that the cost could become as low as $8 or $6 next year.
However, over time, LTE (the long-term evolution of 3G) could become a valuable option for many companies involved in this space, as LTE becomes widely adopted, and prices associated with it would start to come down. LTE’s larger coverage capacity and ability to support a higher number of points should play a key role here. For instance Patrick Plas, Alcatel Lucent’s chief operating officer for wireless, said that the company is “not putting a lot of effort into this technology [WiMax] any longer”, adding that upcoming LTE launches by companies such as Verizon showed “a clear direction taken by the industry towards LTE”. Plas is not the first to point out that LTE is now firmly in the roadmap of most operators — even Wi-Max backers have acknowledged that their chosen technology is more likely to address niche markets. Last October Cisco announced a $2.9 billion purchase for Starent Networks, which offers wireless products based on LTE technology.
Others technologies could be in the game too. California communications company Tropos Networks has signed a $1.7 million contract to provide wireless services for Avista Utilities smart grid energy network. Under the term “smart grid,” utilities are adding two-way, real time connections that are able to pinpoint problems in energy distribution, along with helping consumers and utilities monitor energy use better. The Tropos mesh network will help the Avista system managers find locations of outages and more quickly dispatch line crews to fix the problem.
A final choice linked strongly with actors policies
Technology choice will depend on the agreements between all the actors. Indeed we can see some tensions growing between services providers like AT&T, Verizon and the electrical utilities. In one hand utilities want to build their own wireless network between smarts meters and nodes on the distribution and transmission network. The benefit is that they own the network and are independent even if the initial cost for the infrastructure is high (CAPEX model). But building such a network requires available utility frequencies to communicate that the FCC has not attributed yet. While in the other, service providers already have 3G and 4G broadband network, and utilities could pay to use it and transmit all the data (OPEX model). The cost for each smart meter would be on average 15 cents/meter/month. In the next months we should see moves from each side and this will influence the choice for a future technology.