Using wireless connectivity allows smart metering companies to implement meters easily and efficiently. This ensures that timely and accurate information is being delivered to both customers and suppliers, keeping both parties happy in the long-term says Paul Smith, CEO of Wyless.

Paul Smith, Wyless, UK

The continuing adoption of remote meter reading in the European utility industry is going to generate high volumes of wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) connections in the industry.

Today, mobile networks are the primary media for the collection of hourly meter readings from commericial and industrial (C&I) customers. Between 1.5 million and 2 million electricity and gas meters are read on an hourly basis in Europe. Additionally, almost one million PLC concentrators and residential meters are connected to GSM or GPRS networks. Altogether metering equipment accounted for about 32 per cent of the total number of active wireless M2M connections on the European market at the end of 2006. The penetration in the C&I segment, however, is near saturation point, so additions must primarily come from the residential market through full-scale deployments of advanced metering management (AMM) – in North America this is commonly referred to as automated metering infractructure or AMI.

EU Metering Marketing Projections
Wireless M2M connections in the European utility industry are on the rise
Source: Berg Insight
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According to research by Swedish business analysts Berg Insight, between 2006 and 2011, the penetration rate for fixed mobile network technology among electricity and gas meters is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16 per cent until 2011. Out of a total population of 345 million units, the installed base of electricity and gas meters and concentrators connected to mobile networks is expected to reach about 8.4 million units.

There are several reasons for this relatively restrained growth rate says Berg Insight. GSM and GPRS is facing intense competition from PLC and emerging wireless mesh technologies and is in many cases only used for backhaul communication in full-scale AMM deployments. Moreover, AMM is characterized by very long sales and deployment cycles, as well as protracted regulatory considerations.

Many of the projects currently planned are not expected to result in full-scale installations until after 2011. The maturity level also varies greatly between different European markets. For example, Italy and Sweden are close to achieving 100 per cent penetration rates for remote meter reading in the electricity sector, with countries like the UK lag far behind.

The one common characteristic shared by all these markets is high average electricity expenditure levels for households – either because of taxation or high consumption. Berg Insight expects that energy price levels – indirectly linked to the political will to reduce dependency on non-renewable energy sources – will have a very strong influence on the adoption of AMM throughout the European market.

With the recent announcement from the UK government that smart metering for medium-to-large businesses will be mandatory within the next ten years, smart metering companies are advised to adopt wireless M2M technologies, to help utilities companies comply efficiently and effectively with the new law.

According to the Energy Retail Association, smart metering is the next generation of electricity and gas meters. Smart metering is a two-way remote communication system displaying accurate real-time information on energy use. Smart meters use real-time data to increase the visibility of actual energy usage and can identify trends to help reduce consumption. The system will see the end of estimated bills and automate remote meter readings, providing customers with accurate information on the amount of electricity and gas being used.

Smart metering companies provide this system of metering using M2M technology, either with fixed line or wireless connectivity. M2M technology is based on the concept of allowing devices or sensors to ‘talk’ to each other or to another computer or server over a network.

Ensuring accurate meter data

In July 2008, the UK’s Citizens Advice Bureau issued a warning that without the correct information about usage, utilities providers cannot invoice customers accurately.

The warning, which was to companies who use direct debit to pay their utilities bills, stated that they might end up owing their utilities supplier money, as their readings are based on estimations, as opposed to an exact reflection of how much energy is being used.

Smart metering companies address this with AMM and Automated Meter Reading (AMR), which all have at their core the ability to automate meter reading remotely, predict and allow the management of energy usage based on real-time data.

For end customers, reducing costs, accurate billing and saving on energy usage are just a few of the benefits realized, thanks to the real-time information smart meters provide. From the perspective of the utilities companies themselves, customer relationships are strengthened, reading validation and settlement is improved because the accuracy of readings and billing, and energy theft can be detected more quickly and supply disconnected where necessary. For all concerned automatic and remote meter reading provides a safer, more accurate and environmentally friendly option than the alternative manual process.

Connectivity options

Typically smart metering solutions rely on data connectivity provided over either a GSM/GPRS network, fixed line telephone network (PSTN), satellite or the Internet. Connectivity to the meters is important so that real-time data is transmitted to the utilities company, from millions of meters, requiring a reliable and secure connection. Of these connectivity options, the installation of smart meters is made quicker and easier through wireless technologies, provided by a managed wireless network provider, like Wyless.

Wireless smart metering solutions use GPRS or 3G mobile networks to communicate data to utilities companies. The meter communicates over the wireless networks through an Access Point Name (APN) at the operators network, to the customer’s firewall and onto a central server for processing.

The standard network operator offering uses a public APN (used by all customers) and dynamic IP addresses on the meters i.e. the IP address keeps changing each time it communicates over the network. Some companies, such as Wyless, offer managed private APNs from the leading network operators and provide smart metering companies with a Private Fixed IP address for each and every meter in the field. This allows true two-way communication with the meters, enhancing data security, and reduces the cost and complexity of using and managing a wireless network.

Benefits of wireless connectivity

Wireless connectivity provides advantages to smart metering companies on many levels. Because the meters are wirelessly connected they are not limited by a physical location and have the flexibility to be moved if necessary, at lower cost. Meters in remote locations where it is difficult to run cables can also be attached to a wireless network quickly and easily.

A wireless network can be deployed much more quickly than a fixed network as no cabling is needed between meters and the speed of deployment can provide cost savings to the smart metering company.

Companies such as Wyless, provide smart metering companies with the ability to manage their connectivity through a simple but comprehensive online management platform which offers granular reporting and simple invoicing as well as the tools to monitor and manage connectivity, their wireless network and SIMs, including provisioning, saving them administration time and costs and simplifying the deployment and management of smart metering solutions.

Wireless connectivity in action

There are a number of smart metering companies in the UK who are already using wireless technologies and they provide good case studies on how it can be implemented successfully. EnergyICT, a provider of energy and meter data management solutions to utilities companies, recently installed wireless SIM cards that were deployed within their cutting-edge WebRTU data logger and installed at customers’ sites, enabling automatic and remote monitoring of their energy consumption.

Once the WebRTU has collected the on-site data, the data is sent via GPRS to EnergyICT’s state-of-the-art EIServer software platform, which is web-hosted and designed to collect, store and process energy consumption data for validation, estimation, editing, peak-shaving, forecasting, allocation, reconciliation and complex billing.

Wireless M2M technology has helped EnergyICT put one of its devices in every Asda and Tesco supermarket in the UK, which has made a big impact on these organizations’ efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

Easier AMM implementation

Using wireless connectivity allows smart metering companies to implement meters easily and efficiently and ensure that timely and accurate information is being delivered to both customers and suppliers. Through AMM and AMR, the meter reading process is automated and simplified, making it efficient for all parties and provides additional benefits in terms of customer service and demand management.

Without the correct information about energy usage, the provider cannot invoice the customer accurately, however, with the availability of real-time data on usage, efficiencies can be made for both the consumer and utility company, which in the long term will keep both parties happy.