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Deconstructing the Information Superhighway: A Map for Utilities

Fortnightly Magazine - December 1995

satellite cable ("wireless cable") exceeded even the most optimistic market forecasts (em even in areas with wired cable service.

Divergence can create powerful new competition where none existed (em e.g., wired versus wireless cable in urban areas. However, it is far more common for new technology to create or grow markets. For example, wireless technology is expanding cable television to rural areas. Another example is the long-distance calling market. Since 1984, AT&T's long-distance market share has dwindled to 60 percent. However, access to lower-cost technology and the creative new services introduced by MCI and Sprint have caused AT&T's long-distance revenues to grow 11.5 percent in a total long-distance communications market (now at $65 billion) that is 67.5-percent larger than it was in 1984.

Networks for Energy Services

The networks available for communications range from the postal service to megabit-speed wide-area fiber networks. For utility automation applications, such as automating metering and delivering energy services to the home, five two-way networks stand out (see Figure 1). All offer potential avenues to send energy prices, bills, control commands, and usage data to consumers or energy-related devices. They can receive metering and alarm data or user requests for data and services, including electronic bill payment.

Neighborhood broadband. The "to-the-neighborhood" network links the service provider and the neighborhood. In urban areas, the network is often fiber already, and will become more so over the next few years. This type of network features high capacity and supports video, voice, and data communications. Since its cost is shared by a large number of homes (em a few hundred to a thousand or more (em its cost as a portion of total service delivery cost is small, though significant. The power distribution system offers an analogy: This link is equivalent to a transmission line or high-voltage distribution line to a feeder circuit.

Wireless alternatives are also becoming available for the link to the neighborhood. These offer sufficient capacity to support many utility applications, including

automated metering, and make sense where disaster recovery is an important feature. Wireless links backed by batteries offer greater reliability; wireless networks continue to function even when wires go down.

Home broadband. The "to-the-home" broadband link provides voice, video, high-volume data, and perhaps the Internet connection. It may be fiber-optic, but is more likely coaxial cable. End users will need to pay about $25 per month to support the infrastructure, in addition to paying for the applications ("content"). The initial promise of such networks led several large telecommunications companies to announce in 1994 that they would be installing fiber to every home. This year, several of these (em in particular, Bell Atlantic, U S WEST, and Pacific Bell (em delayed their plans due to high equipment costs and disappointing trial results. Nevertheless, two-way fiber or cable may exist in a significant number of homes 10 years from now. When in place, it will provide an inexpensive means of moving energy services data between the utility and a home television or personal computer.

The broadband link could be used to provide users with access to metering