Making a SMART choice

“Choosing the right technology is going to ensure long-term success of smart metering projects,” avers Shiv Kaushik, Country Manager, Cyan Technologies
 Smart cities are coming to India. During his recent trip to Japan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a tie-up between the cities of Varanasi and Kyoto, with the objective of turning Varanasi into a smart city. Of course, the new central government of India has spoken time and again about its intentions to transform Indian cities into smart cities, as well as developing 100 new ones.
Research firm Forrester defines a smart city as “the use of smart computing technologies to make the critical infrastructure components and services of a city – including city administration, education, healthcare, public safety, real estate, transportation and utilities – more intelligent, interconnected and efficient.” Utilities that make use of smart meters are a critical building block of smart cities. A smart meter is one that is connected to the utility’s computers through a data communication network – allowing both utilities as well as customers to regularly monitor their consumption.
Smart metering or Automatic Metering Infrastructure (AMI) is not new to India; there are many pilot projects already running in many utilities that are successfully demonstrating the benefits. In the last few months, Essel Utilities and Tata Power have even announced commercial deployment of smart metering solutions in locations as diverse as Bihar’s Muzaffarpur and Maharashtra’s Nagpur, as well as Mumbai. More utilities are expected to announce roll out plans of their own as they realise the enormous benefits, financial and otherwise, of migrating to smart metering; the least of which is enhanced quality of service for all customers.
An advantage of using smart metering technology is that utilities do not require access to each meter individually to record the readings. The accurate meter data can be gathered remotely by simply walking through the neighbourhoods with a hand held meter reading device, or aggregated through centrally located data concentrator units. This helps the utilities reduce their labour cost. Additionally, error detection and correction using a smart metering system is also easier and less expensive and reduces the chance of local fraud.
As utilities prepare for smart metering adoption, the choice of underlying communications technology is a major strategic decision that requires careful consideration. Cost, security, regulatory compliance, standards compliance, transmission range and power consumption are just some of the important factors which need to be considered while choosing the right communication technology for a smart meter.
At present, utilities can choose from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Power Line Communication (PLC), GPRS (cellular) and sub-GHz wireless as smart metering communication technologies. While Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, GPRS and sub-GHz are all based on wireless communications, PLC is a wired technology. When it comes to choosing between wired and wireless communication networks for a smart meter, the latter is no doubt the intelligent choice.
When compared to the smart meters using PLC, the wireless enabled meters are simple to install and easy to commission. While PLC requires a structured infrastructure to be already in place to work, there is no need for expensive cabling and associated wireline infrastructure in case of wireless communication networks. PLC also has the disadvantage that it weakens the signal frequency due to conductor material properties of the cable, branching, echo and interference due to multipath propagation. 
Among the wireless communications, while Wi-Fi and sub-GHz transmit signals over a longer field range, Bluetooth and ZigBee transmissions have a shorter range. Wi-Fi is often a great choice when a large volume of data needs to be transferred (over Internet, LAN or WAN for example), but using it for low volume data transfer (as is required in smart metering applications) is inefficient and costly. Bluetooth on the other hand is only suited for very short range (~10 metres) applications. Implementing GPRS on a per meter basis is very expensive. To operate at the optimal level, smart meters need to send relatively small amounts of data to longer ranges at regular intervals. Thus we are left with ZigBee and sub-GHz as the two viable choices.
Utilities can choose smart meters either running the ZigBee wireless platform, which runs on 2.4 GHz; or sub-GHz wireless platforms like CyLec, which runs on 865 MHz for India. The major difference between the two is the range of the signals they transmit. In urban areas, a sub-GHz standard like CyLec performs most effectively, as the lower the operating frequency, the higher the transmission range for the signal. In simpler terms, operating on 865MHz frequency ensures that the signal can easily propagate through concrete walls and can reach longer distances.
Smart meters must continuously be connected to other components of the network and the utilities; a compromise on the range is generally not acceptable. Also, because of its longer range, sub-GHz systems require fewer data collectors to serve the same number of smart meters as compared to ZigBee, thus reducing the cost of deployments.
A major design consideration for a wireless smart meter is power consumption. If a smart meter is battery-powered, the battery is often more expensive than other components, and therefore needs to last longer so as to keep the overall operational costs low. It calls for keeping the radio transmit power at an optimal level. Even though increasing the transmit power of the radio is an easy way to increase range; this approach would come at the cost of higher power consumption. While sub-GHz RF which already transmits long range signals does not need to use extra power to increase the range, ZigBee does. Thus, sub-GHz wireless technology is more cost efficient than ZigBee.
The longer range, ease of use and lower implementation and operating costs of an 865 MHz-based wireless system like CyLec provide convincing reasons in favour of sub-GHz radio usage in smart metering applications. While developed countries like Europe and the US have already implemented sub-GHz technology in metering systems on a large scale, India and China are now beginning to adopt the trend. Smart metering rollouts by both Tata Power and Essel Utilities make use of Cyan’sCyLec865MHz solution.
One challenge for a meter manufacturer using sub-GHz wireless technology is regulatory and standards compliance. While the 2.4GHz band is available globally, the sub-GHz frequencies vary depending on the region, making it challenging for designers to build a meter which works with the applicable standards worldwide. The problem is fortunately non-existent in India, but for meter manufacturers with global ambitions, there is a need for a global convergence of support for the sub-GHz communications-based smart meters. With the increase in deployment of sub-GHz wireless smart meters, the industry is slowly moving towards a standards-based wireless solution.
For instance, Cyan has pioneered the adoption of open standards-based, integrated smart metering solutions in India. As the Indian market progresses to seeing full-scale smart metering deployments, Cyan is well positioned to support open standards for both metering and communication protocols. The company recognises that its customers need to have a choice of solutions, for hardware and software, to ensure they can achieve cost efficiencies and benefit from the technological advances of the future. That is why Cyan’s open communication platform, CyLec, delivers flexibility and innovative functionality to customers. To enhance the flexibility for the utilities and reduce their costs even further, Cyan’s CyLec also comes as a retrofit external module that helps utilities convert existing deployed static meters into smart meters.
For many Indian utilities, the choice of smart metering technologies will also depend on whether the technology is proven to work without failure in harsh local conditions, with extreme temperatures and general tampering risks. Solutions like CyLec once again triumph in this regard as they are developed explicitly for the conditions prevailing in India and other emerging markets.
The ongoing pilots and the first commercial deployments provide a valid use case for other utilities considering smart metering deployments. Ultimately, choosing the right technology is going to ensure long-term success of smart metering projects – helping utilities to create ‘revenue assurance’ on one hand, on account of accurate and continuous metering, and providing high levels of service to customers on the other, leading to a win-win scenario for all involved.
 
Authored by__Shiv Kaushik, Country Manager, Cyan Technologies.

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