Roll over wireless, tell your meter the news.
AMR has come full circle - from industry darling to problem child and now back again to the next new thing. For this latest reincarnation, thank the Internet.
Early AMR efforts focused on how to recoup costs through lower operating expenses and more accurate usage data, but infrastructure startup costs proved a stumbling block to modernization when industry uncertainty over deregulation made companies wary of whether they'd ever see a return on their investment.
Now deregulation has matured enough to remove some uncertainties. At the same time, the Internet offers a ready technology to provide enough of a cost incentive to justify abandoning a system that's been functioning long enough to become an institution.
The Internet offers an alternative to wireless radio frequency, which has seen a lot of pilot activity but that involves an extensive initial investment. The new Internet approach utilizes existing infrastructures - shared phone lines as well as the increasingly ubiquitous cable modem and digital subscriber line, or DSL. The result is an immediate lowering of startup costs as well as truly remote data monitoring capabilities (no drive-by vans or wands).
And there's a larger incentive. Communications via Internet protocol (IP) that use home telemetry gateway with open architecture can link an entire range of services - metering, load control, appliance monitoring and home security, for example. The opportunity to spread AMR infrastructure costs across multiple applications creates an even more compelling business case for deployment.
Several different technology advances underlie these new business opportunities. They are not futuristic predictions, but established technologies that now are being applied to the home/utility market.
1. INTELLIGENT IN-HOME DEVICES. Embedded networked controllers are appearing in a variety of in-home devices including appliances, light switches, security systems and electric meters. Embedded controllers imbue these devices with added local intelligence that supports a variety of applications such as AMR, demand-side management, preventative maintenance and home automation. But this local intelligence is not application-specific. The same device (for example, a freezer) can be part of an automated electricity demand limiting application as well as being controlled by the home automation system.
2. UBIQUITOUS, LOW-COST IP CONNECTIONS. The demand for Internet services has driven IP connections to be present wherever people live and work, whether by cable modem, integrated services digital network (ISDN) or DSL. The cost of creating devices with IP connectivity also has dropped dramatically. Embedded software and embedded processor technologies have enabled full-featured IP appliances to be created for well under $200. These devices can support a variety of physical media including public switched telephone networks (PSTN), Ethernet, fiber optic and wireless. Embedded Web servers provide flexible user interfaces that can support thin-client access devices such as screen phones and set-top boxes.
3. EMBEDDED DISTRIBUTED OBJECT TECHNOLOGY. Linking 1 million or more homes to a service-provider head-end requires a powerful software and networking architecture that delivers scalable, robust communications. Distributed object technology provides this infrastructure and is a proven technology now appearing in embedded connectivity devices. A distributed object architecture also provides for simplified integration with multiple service providers and head-end applications.
Now distributed objects have been embedded into low-cost networked devices, enabling a flatter, simpler system architecture that delivers flexibility and scalability without requiring any central server bottlenecks. Distributed object technologies such as common object request broker architecture, or CORBA, provide the perfect link between control devices and enterprise software, since they allow the control data to be delivered in a way that easily integrates with those service applications.
The power of open standards cannot be overestimated. For the home/utility environment, IP and the other standards that comprise the Internet are having a profound impact on system architectures and product designs. Over the last few years we have moved to a situation where IP technology for implementation of wide- and local-area networks (WAN or LAN) is fully accepted as the international standard for data networking. Gone are the days of proprietary architectures and vertically oriented networks. It is now clear that an IP-based architecture is the way to provide a future-proof system with flexibility to accommodate multiple services to the home.
The standardization of control networks also has undergone rapid change in the last few years. While there is not a single ubiquitous standard across all industries, three de facto standards have emerged for home networking: (1) EIA-709 (LonWorks(r)), (2) CEBus (EIA/ANSI-600) and (3) X-10.
LonWorks, now adopted as EIA-709, offers a strong open international standard for the home networking infrastructure, supporting both powerline media for existing homes and twisted-pair (telephone wiring) for new homes. Many energy and security systems already are based upon LonWorks, the de facto standard for commercial building automation. Meanwhile, an increasing demand for Internet access from the home is driving IP connectivity independently, whether by cable modem, ISDN or DSL.
But all three standards support powerline carrier (PLC) communications, key in providing services to existing homes, with EIA-709 also supporting additional media including unshielded twisted-pair. All three of these standards have been adopted widely by vendors and effectively set the stage for explosive growth in home products ready for networked access. EIA-709, in particular, has found wide acceptance world-wide in both commercial and home environmental control, security and lighting applications.
From Device to Network
Early approaches to AMR took a device-connectivity approach. is to say, they linked a single device, the meter, into a wide-area network accessible by head-end applications.
By contrast, consider a network infrastructure approach. An in-home network is linked in a general way to the wide-area network, and finally to multiple head-end applications. Access is provided to any device on the in-home network from any head-end application. In-home devices can include the meter, load-control devices, home security devices, appliances, lighting devices and home automation systems.
This network approach creates an inherently expandable architecture that supports multiple applications and services over the same network infrastructure. It also supports multiple models of system installation. Some components, such as the meter, may be installed by the service provider as part of the infrastructure deployment. Other parts, such as home automation devices, may be purchased and installed by the residential consumer.
IP networking technology has evolved at a dizzying pace over the last several years and shows no signs of slowing down. An IP-based network connection to the home appears to offer the right choice for a multi-service telemetry system for several reasons.
First, it provides a base solution for covering the maximum number of homes immediately, that of implementing the IP connection over the shared residential phone line. There is no extra WAN infrastructure to deploy, greatly reducing the cost of the system, increasing its flexibility and providing a clear path toward future technologies.
Second, it allows a full-time Internet connection to be re-used for telemetry data. Rather than create an expensive, single-purpose infrastructure such as a wireless LAN/WAN system, this approach leverages the continuing high levels of investment in IP connections to the home such as cable and DSL.
Third, it creates a future-proof telemetry system, since the architecture easily can adapt to new physical media. Internet protocol has shown a remarkable ability to adapt to additional physical network media as they are created. Some of the common media available to the home that support IP are: (1) PSTN, including sharing a single residential line, (2) coaxial/hybrid fiber-coaxial network (HFC), via cable modem, (3) DSL and (4) ISDN.
IP provides the basis for an architecture that operates over multiple WAN media. In fact, communications to different customer segments often are best achieved with different physical media to the home. Shared PSTN provides a broad reach for most consumers. However, as deployment of cable and xDSL modems continues, interfaces to these devices via 10baseT (Ethernet) increasingly will be required.
David Gaw is president and Adam Marsh is vice president of marketing for Coactive Networks Inc., based in Sausalito, Calif. Coactive Networks is a developer of control network connectivity systems for flexible access to home automation control systems.
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