With the advent of smart grids, we can now understand in detail how each piece of the network is either stressed, connected or contributing to overall performance. To fully benefit from this resource, utilities need access to licensed spectrum or they could make use of existing telecommunications infrastructure.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

For electricity and gas utilities, the adoption of smart meters and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) has been largely driven by regulatory efforts to enable a carbon-free energy system, to support renewable energy load growth, and to enable smarter energy infrastructure expansion.

Added to technology adoption are the utilities’ internal efforts to provide better customer service while at the same time increasing operational efficiency. Through the deployment of smart meters, water utilities are extending their reach all the way from generation and purification to the end customer.

Extending the horizon of network monitoring

AMI devices require higher levels of interoperability and real-time communications for monitoring and control. AMI offers utilities a real-time window into their infrastructure and a view extending all the way to the end consumer. This end-to-end transparency is a unique opportunity for utilities as aging infrastructure issues and greater consumer demand puts increased pressure on utilities around the globe.

However, while this real-time data provides many benefits, it is not a trivial technology exercise to deliver this new capability from an IT perspective, and certainly not one that water utilities are used to encountering. As a consequence of smart meter deployments, water utilities are faced with managing many times more information than before, and it is this volume of data that underscores the need for advanced analytical capabilities.

Whether wired or wireless, networks must be reliable and robust in order to manage the data as well as two-way communications across their networks. And must offer coverage of geographically diverse areas in both urban and rural environments. Utilities of all types and locations need access to licensed spectrum but there are options available in telecommunications infrastructure for water utilities just as for electric utilities.

These are as follows:

Powerline and fibre networks – can be an option in some areas to extend an existing network or piggy-back off an electric system. However, as with other wired systems, if the line is damaged in a storm or knocked down by a vehicle, the communications will be cut as well.

Satellite communications – have delays in data transmission and therefore may not be a good fit for some water utility applications.

However, in applications that are not time constrained, satellites offer a good redundancy as they are not generally affected by natural disasters.

Drive-by short range radio – many automatic meter reading (AMR) solutions utilise this technology over open spectrum bands. Notably, driveby systems save time by reading meters, but still require a fleet of trucks and drivers. Another disadvantage is that this system does not incorporate real-time communications and so is limited on usage beyond billing.

AMI and many other smart devices look to two-way, real-time communication networks using either mesh or point-tomultipoint systems.

Mesh networks – use a ‘mesh’ of radio relays to gather and move the data and to communicate with each end point in the fastest manner as it has access to multiple communication paths.

Many mesh systems use open frequency such as a cellular system, which the utility does not control, and add monthly fees, which need to be considered in the total cost. Unlicensed frequencies used in RF mesh might also raise some concerns about interference. Some countries restrict use of frequencies in the unlicensed spectrum, including RF mesh.

Point-to-point or point-to-multipoint long range radio – uses a hub and spoke design using one tower to communicate with many endpoint radios.

It utilises licensed-spectrum systems which allow for IP communications and data-packet control, channelisation and prioritisation of data, and a higher level of security.

Reliability and scalability are key factors

• Make sure you have sufficient data collectors and repeaters to transmit the data.

• Redundancy is important and necessary, specifically if one of the data collectors or towers has to be taken out of service for repairs (breakdown maintenance).

• The goal should be for 100% communication even if it is not attainable every day.

• To put this into perspective: 98% communication may sound good but 2% of 35,000 meters is 700 meters that are not communicating. These 2% are likely to be the same ones that are not communicating on a regular basis.

• Very rarely will a meter improve communication after installation – more likely trees will grow and buildings will be constructed that will reduce signal strengths.

Propagation studies, battery life, redundancy, latency and cybersecurity are all key factors to consider in any of these and perhaps a hybrid approach may be warranted for your specific utility.

The utility industry is undergoing a profound change thanks to new ‘smart’ technologies and the push for smart cities.

Thanks to smart AMI telecommunication networks, this evolution will usher in greater efficiencies and operational control, while ensuring communities can grow and reach full potential. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 1, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

About the author

Mlungisi Mkhwanazi is the executive director of the Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC) and a telecommunications expert with more than 22 years of experience in the utility telecom industry. The AUTC is a non-profit trade association shaping the future of utility mission critical technologies and is an association partner of ESI Africa. | @UTCNow