The internet has been one of the most transformative global developments in our history, changing the landscape for communications, education and economic advancement around the world. Since 2000, global internet penetration has grown by 936% — and with nearly 50% of the world still not connected, there are considerable opportunities to expand its reach.
From the creation of the first electronic computers in the 1950s to the steady rise of search engines like Google and ultimately the expansive proliferation of Wi-Fi and wireless devices, the internet has constantly evolved to empower the individuals, communities and businesses it reaches — and it is on course for continuing involvement in our lives.
In particular, the relentless focus of consumers, communities and businesses on the internet of things is serving to morph the functionality of the smart grid by enabling utilities to move from traditional automatic meter reading (AMR) to advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), which provides utilities with real-time, actionable data and visibility into their systems. In doing so, utilities are empowered to improve customer engagement and also allow customers to make informed choices about their energy usage, such as power consumption, to help them save money and optimize the automation of their homes. Recognizing this trend, what technological connections may be realized to further engage and realize a true IoT expansion of the smart grid?
As we shift from our wired past to a more wireless future, let’s look at the next big change in AMI that will expand our connectivity and impact our connected society.
Rethinking wireless networks with 802.11s
It’s clear that AMI provides a huge opportunity for global utilities to go beyond simply reading meters, and start to automate, predict, monitor and control the grid. But, they are being held back by technologies — 802.15.4g, Zigbee (6LoWPAN) and Broadband over Power Line (BPL)— that have latency issues, limited scalability and in some cases, low bandwidth and other limitations.
For example, typically the baseline for AMI today has been usage of Zigbee (6LoWPAN), which targets long battery life devices in wireless control and monitoring applications. But, it has its challenges in today’s modern landscape; in addition to having higher latency, limited scalability and low throughput, Zigbee traditionally is used in low data rate applications of up to 250 Kbps, which limits it to applications that require long battery life and secure networking. BPL, on the other hand, does have broader applications to smart utility networks and smart grids and metering — however, it has no transformer monitoring capabilities, thus making it difficult for a utility to act upon any real-time diagnostic capabilities centered around this critical utility asset. Additionally, since BPL cannot pass through the transformer, a jumper or additional hardware must be created to allow the BPL signal to bypass the transformer and ultimately provide a benefit to customers. For a system to provide true IoT, it must be flexible and holistic in its approach to asset monitoring and system monitoring flexibility.
So, how do we overcome the shortcomings of technologies like 802.15.4g, Zigbee and BPL to tap into the full potential of AMI? Is it possible to engage an alternative wireless networking paradigm which allows greater bandwidth, full mesh capability and the potential to engage other connected devices, not just meters? To enable an effective AMI, it is critical to construct a stable and reliable communications network, one which uses full utility analytics while providing a wireless, scalable, secure and mesh-enabled environment. To enable a true IoT architecture, this mesh network must afford the capability to seamlessly integrate those Wi-Fi enabled products common to smart city infrastructure, for example, smart streetlighting, smart parking meters, connected security cameras, public safety assets and the like. And this concept becomes more intimately important as one considers the possibility to securely allow personal web-connected mobile devices to engage with the mesh network, recognizing there are more mobile devices now on the planet than people.
802.11s offers a vendor-neutral way to build wireless mesh networks over a wireless LAN and is unique in that it enables interoperability between client devices of all types and manufacturers, which means that any device can link to a common mesh network using the inclusion of a commonly available Wi-Fi chipset. 802.11s will allow us to rethink how wireless networks are designed in individual homes and businesses and, eventually, communities. And, we are now seeing the first entries into the 802.11s wireless mesh home market. However, what happens when we move outside the home? How can we apply the theme of convergence, popularly recognized in the development of today’s smartphones, to the global utility markets?
The impact of 802.11s on the smart grid
Smart grid environments provide an incredible opportunity for utilities to expand connectivity around the globe — particularly given only 50% of the world’s population is currently online. Yet, the challenge with the smart grid is that it requires technologies to support a broad variety of electrical services and applications. That is where the 802.11s technology comes in and we apply the principle of convergence to the global utility markets.
In using 802.11s, commonly described as a Wi-Fi-centric wireless mesh, as the network backbone for the smart grid infrastructure, utilities would see numerous benefits. 802.11s can be used in higher data rate applications than 4G, Zigbee and BPL — up to 600 Mbps depending upon hardware configurations and backhaul capabilities. Thus, it’s able to support higher bandwidth applications like wireless voice over IP and video conferencing, among others. In addition to higher throughput and lower latency, 802.11s also allows for greater ability to scale to a larger covered area. No other AMI systems allow for the broad range of asset monitoring as does an 802.11s-based system.
Critical examples of this are current smart grid AMI technologies that can deliver advanced power metering hardware and software using Wi-Fi-based wireless WAN mesh, essentially creating a large geographical hotspot. Using these systems, a utility’s specific information can be delivered and collected from customers in real time, using a Wi-Fi-based smart grid. Further, utilities may deliver actionable data back to their customers utilizing the customer’s digital device of choice and accessing the same wireless mesh network. That is particularly important given the explosion of IoT and the wide variety of consumer-based, Wi-Fi home-automation products now on the market.
Our wireless future
By 2020, the number of connected devices is expected to reach 24 billion, with the total number of mobile connected devices doubling to 12 billion. Given that, what if all IoT-enabled devices could communicate with each other on the same Wi-Fi network with minimal cost outlays to current power infrastructure?
The opportunities for this multibillion-dollar market of innovative and connected products are endless — for individuals, communities and businesses across the globe. The application of a Wi-Fi-centric smart grid strategy, such as through 802.11s, will empower utilities and their customers to lay the groundwork for a future with more collaborative, efficient local energy management and the promise of a better tomorrow. And ultimately, for those communities in emerging markets without the benefits of connectivity, we may serve as communications stewards, addressing the current connectivity-disenfranchised and ushering in additional digital citizens.