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Deconstructing the Information Superhighway: A Map for Utilities

Fortnightly Magazine - December 1995

In-building networks raise interesting challenges for utilities. End customers purchase the networks (and the appliances or appliance modules), since they enjoy the benefits of greater convenience or reduced energy bills. As a result, a variety of power-line carriers and control units are appearing on the market. Utilities (em or "to-the-home" communications providers in general (em should choose an interface flexible enough to connect to the various units purchased by consumers.

Customers over Technologies

The Information Superhighway offers utilities both great promise and great challenges. The promise lies in new ways to reach utility customers; the challenge lies in choosing specific actions, given the plethora of available technology options. A market-driven

approach resolves the technology question by focusing on the customer:

s Who is the buyer for each application? The residential consumer buys energy services; the utility buys automated metering.

s What does the buyer need? Why would the buyer purchase the service? The consumer may buy inhome network communications for convenience (to control appliances) or economics (to save money by choosing a time-of-use rate and shifting load). The utility would buy automated metering to reduce meter-reading costs, billing costs, and interest expenses associated with delayed cash flow.

Despite the variety of communications technologies in the marketplace, utilities can move forward with wireless automated metering without either suboptimizing their long-term solution for metering or precluding participation in future communications-related energy or other consumer services. Wireless metering is complementary, rather than competitive, with other emerging communications technologies, from PCS to two-way broadband networks.

Narrowband wireless combines the lowest cost and highest reliability with utility control as an optimal solution for collecting

metering data. Yet, implementing narrowband wireless today keeps the door wide open to tomorrow's applications, whether those turn out to involve delivering metering data to consumers via a broadband link to the Internet or feeding usage information into a home controller that uses an inhome power-line carrier network to control appliances. t

Chris S. King is vice president of strategic planning for CellNet Data Systems. He formerly managed Pacific Gas & Electric's time-of-use and other innovative rate programs.Complementary, not CompetingIn 1994, the number of cellular phones in use increased 50.7 percent; the number of pagers in use rose 23.7 percent (em even though both technologies enable mobile communications and are mostly used by the same individuals.

Why do people have both cell phones and pagers?

A page is cheaper when a call is not required, unobtrusive in a meeting, as well as smaller and easier to carry. Pager batteries also last much longer than those in cellular phones. And pagers offer superior radio coverage (em a traveler can receive a page, at very low cost, in a plane flying over a metropolitan area.

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