Universal connectivity and the smart grid

Paul Boughton

Chris O'Dell reports on smart metering and the need for consistent connectivity.

Although every utility operates differently, there are clear parallels as to what is required to provide a resilient, ubiquitous communications infrastructure that enables information to flow from large numbers of meters via a smart grid to the central hub.

Today, national roll-outs of smart metering programmes across countries looking for the commercial and environmental benefits of reduced energy usage have once again put the important issue of broadband coverage under the spotlight.

A common driver is that individual homes and businesses must have access to smart meters in order to facilitate a smart grid infrastructure. And this does not just apply to traditionally hard-to-reach remote geographies, as in many cases town-centre high-rise tower blocks can also struggle for consistent coverage.

Perhaps the most pressing question is how to maintain universal connectivity as part of a credible and robust communications network, in a way which will ensure the success of a smart meter roll-out in each country.

Towards a 'smarter' world

Satellite communications can play an important role in helping providers meet this tough challenge.

Not only will it provide effective coverage for those locations with inadequate terrestrial or cellular coverage, but will also form a part of the underlying communications network in supporting a smart metering programme.

Such initiatives will typically focus initially on the customer benefits resulting from more accurate measurement and reporting of electricity and gas usage, both in the home and in businesses - so enabling more intelligent, informed choices about energy usage.

However, the increase in smart metering also heralds an era of fundamental lifestyle change as we move towards a world of 'smarter living', at home, in the car and in the workplace.

At a domestic level, satellite will enable connectivity in more remote areas where substantial investment in expanding the existing network cannot be justified. More importantly perhaps, satellite offers a number of significant advantages as part of the local and national infrastructure.

With strong interoperability, high availability and flexibility, satellite can provide suitable back-up communications, with best-practice solutions offering an unrivalled quality of service and service level agreement (SLA). At the same time, satellite is especially well-suited to the type of narrow-band solutions typically required in a domestic smart meter environment.

Managed service

In most cases, getting something right 99.99 per cent of the time is a job well done. Unfortunately, in the context of utilities this is not always enough. So how will they respond?

The high level of reliability demanded will only be achievable by using multiple communications and networking channels that automatically switch based on availability, efficiency and cost.

To meet this requirement, the utility network of the future will seamlessly blend multiple terrestrial, wireless and satellite-based communications technologies to dramatically improve grid reliability and efficiency.

The ideal network will typically combine two-way communication, pervasive energy network monitoring and digital controls with condition-based maintenance, self-monitoring and self-healing. This is essential if it is to provide the intelligent, highly reliable backbone necessary to support critical energy transmission and distribution.

By combining satellite and terrestrial communications, utilities will be able to monitor the health and status of a greater number of remote distribution elements, allowing automatic and instant responses to potential issues. This level of responsiveness will translate into dramatically reduced outage times, lower operational and maintenance costs and results in greater end-customer satisfaction.

Better grid predictability and quicker issue response will also ensure a more efficient, reliable and cheaper network. As such, service providers need to be able to offer cost-effective hybrid solutions that combine a flexible mix of terrestrial; wireless and satellite technologies which best meet the coverage needs of the individual utility.

Effective connectivity

An effective connectivity solution needs to be backed up by comprehensive managed services, incorporating project management, engineering, operations and on-going maintenance and commercial support.

Experience of different vertical markets can help. Such diverse sectors as lottery and petrol retail, for example, which also demand consistent high availability in linking huge numbers of local sites, provide valuable reference points in showing how providers can meet these demanding requirements.

In both a domestic and business environment, these new networks will allow appliances to communicate with smart meters allowing reporting of consumption and demand on a per-device basis.

Not only will this give utility companies better visibility in managing peaks and troughs of demand, but will allow customers to understand energy consumption on a granular basis and adjust their usage behaviours, putting cost control in their hands.

At the same time, the increasing availability of satellite as part of a multi-channel communications network will ensure that these benefits will be available to all, whether in the heart of major cities or more remote locations.

Network solutions

The portfolio of products and services offered by Hughes Europe cover the full range of communications and applications with a core focus on Managed Services. These include:

Key Technologies - Combining the best transport including DSL, VSAT, wireless, private lines and MPLS.

Connectivity Services - Adding services such as high availability VPN, business continuity, or a variety of Internet access services.

Enhanced Services - Tailoring the solution for the individual network need covering enhanced Internet and hosting services, security management, content management, and many other areas.

Network Management Services - Providing the specialist project, performance, and helpdesk management services required to operate a network efficiently.

Application Management Services - Delivering managed value add applications covering areas including media management, learning and training, and digital signage

Service Management - To simplify and manage complex areas such as contracts, billing, SLAs and licensing across multiple geographies, languages and currencies.

Chris O'Dell is vice president sales and marketing, with Hughes Europe, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK. www.hughes.com

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