Smart meter rollout presents numerous technical challenges

By Martin Courtney
14 Nov 2011 View Comments
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Interest in smart metering from governments and utility companies has created something of a jamboree for hardware and software providers, with large multi-million pound tenders for appropriate equipment already on the table. DECC has published two tenders in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) to support the rollout and analysis of information from smart meters to be installed in up to 30,000 homes across the UK, with each contract expected to be worth between £60m and £240m depending on its length, which will be anything between nine and 15 years.

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These contracts include not only the smart meters themselves, but also back-end datacentre hardware and software and the communications and management services required to pull stored information from each device, present usage data to the customer, transmit it back to the utility company’s datacentres and integrate it with existing customer relationship management (CRM) and billing systems.

Much of the discussion around what the UK smart meter specification should look like has centred on the communications piece of the jigsaw, for which various different technologies are suitable. Wi-Fi is one candidate for the home area network (HAN), which interconnects the smart meters to in-home displays, broadband routers, communications link and other sensors at the customer location, for example. But Wi-Fi signals do not work well inside some buildings, particularly those with thick walls and ceilings, while the 2.4GHz and 5GHz wavebands it uses are subject to interference from a range of other equipment using the same frequencies within the near vicinity. Also, Wi-Fi electricity consumption is high, meaning additional cost for the customer.

Lower power alternatives include ZigBee, a kind of slower, lower cost Bluetooth with a throughput of 250Kbit/s, which is more than enough to carry data from smart meters, and which can operate in either the 2.4GHz or 868MHz frequency band. Some suppliers are also looking into private mobile radio (PMR) to form the HAN environment, including the wireless version of the Meter-Bus (M-Bus) standard already used in parts of Europe. The Wireless M-Bus operates in the 868MHz band and would isolate the smart meter network from internal Wi-Fi networks to avoid interference problems.

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