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Can You Hear Me Now?

Cellular carriers challenge mesh-network dominance.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2011

Now that wireless carriers are promoting their networks as a cost-effective communications platform for smart grid data, they face legitimate questions about fundamental performance issues. But if public networks turn out to be the better choice in many cases, utilities might have some explaining to do before state commissions.

In the pantheon of annoying but effective TV advertising, Verizon Wireless’s “Can You Hear Me Now?” campaign has surely achieved immortality. By pointing out the most universal of mobile phone weaknesses—dead spots and drop-outs—Verizon cleverly moved out in front of the problem to position itself as the market’s coverage leader, much to the irritation of AT&T and the other major carriers.

But this marketing success highlighted cracks in the cellular mortar that have yet to be completely filled. The fact is, there’s no such thing as a perfect wireless phone network, and there never will be. Between the challenges of ground clutter, radio-frequency (RF) interference and technology gremlins, mobile phones will always suffer the occasional glitch.

Most callers have come to accept such imperfections as the price of affordable service—even if they gripe about it on general principles. However, now that wireless carriers are promoting their networks as a cost-effective communications platform for smart grid data, they face some nagging questions from utilities about performance issues like the ones Verizon parodied in its famous ad campaign.

And utilities aren’t just bitching on principle; we’re concerned about fundamental problems that, if unresolved, could leave people freezing in the dark.

But are those worries overblown? Is the real debate about market share and vested interests?

Latent Doubt

Technology vendor SmartSynch spent the past couple of years evangelizing the wireless smart grid, and bringing wireless carriers to the smart grid party. The company first arranged a new low-cost deal ( i.e., 50 cents per meter, per month) with AT&T in March 2009, and during 2010 forged similar agreements with Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and other carriers. Since then, the company won contracts to install systems for TNMP, TVA, and the municipal utility in Memphis, Tenn.

So far, however, such deals have remained small—like 1,000 meters in the case of Memphis—partly because of lingering doubts about public wireless service. In July 2010 the Utilities Telecom Council summed up such doubts in its response to a DOE request for comments about the communications needs of the smart grid. The UTC said public wireless networks would play an increasing role in the industry, but that so far they are “not appropriate for mission critical communications because they lack sufficient reliability, geographic coverage and response speed (low latency).”

Since then, proponents of private networks have taken their cues from the UTC. Mesh-network provider Trilliant, for example, points out that its systems provide utilities with “full control of performance and [aren’t] reliant upon the policies and capabilities of a public carrier.” Others acknowledge the potential for public wireless to serve non-critical purposes, such as data backhaul for advanced metering infrastructure

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