Smart meters have been here for a while now. It’s nothing new as such; still, for the last decade, there has been no unified RF-based standard for more reliable, cost-efficient wireless communication available globally. Now – it is here, it is European, and it is 5G. But let me share the path to this major achievement by sharing two significant milestones for RF (Radio Frequency) based smart metering with you. We’ll also elaborate on what Barack Obama has to do with it.
Let’s return to the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis and the following recession. Barack Obama’s administration stimulated the economy by investing in a 3.4 billion Dollar program for upgrading and digitising the electricity grid. The smart grid was meant to trim utility bills, reduce blackouts, and integrate intermittent power generated by solar and wind energy on the distribution level.
And the first milestone? The program was a real kickstart for US smart meter mass roll-outs. That’s 18 million smart meters. It did not take long until many utilities started investigating the best technologies and governance to run a cost-efficient smart metering infrastructure. That was supposed to be based on wireless communications. The cost-efficiency was a challenge of balancing costs, scale, coverage, interoperability (on meter level), and reliability. The main facilitator for all players was the publicly available 915 MHz ISM band which provided a perfect setting for the needs. That stimulated investments in dedicated communication products that, in many cases, were based on a mesh topology. New players entered the scene, and standards like Wi-SUN arose. RF was (and still is) the most successful approach in the US since the beginning. It focused on long-range and relatively high reliability when the network planning and roll-out execution were correctly done. Infrastructure investments were still needed, and significant planning efforts were part of every roll-out project – but in most cases, smart metering was considered a technological and commercial success.
Around the same time, Europe started its debate about the “right” communication technology for smart metering. Italy and Sweden were the frontrunners in rolling out smart meters. The US players tried to enter the European market with their solution. But they faced the scattered front of spectrum regulation. They couldn’t repeat the success they had in their home market. Italy opted to use PLC (Power Line Communication) instead of radio communication to connect the meters to be fully independent of radio network operators. Many other countries like France and Spain followed as PLC was the most cost-effective option. Industry standards like Prime or G3 PLC were set, mainly driven by utilities who aimed to fully control the metering communications network layer.
For RF players, creating a one-size-fits-all solution for scaling in Europe was impossible. This would have meant a copy-paste from the networking solutions based on the US standards. Porting the technology to this spectrum was too challenging, given the relatively small volumes compared to the rest of Europe. PLC seemed to fit most utility needs. The RF exception was in the Nordic countries where RF played a role because of some regulatory constraints and a relatively scarce density of population. The RF regulations, particularly in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, permitted managing the range, scale, and reliability in a dedicated ISM Band of 868/870 MHz. RF, in combination with cellular, was the best bet. Like in the US, new local providers for RF were the ones that provided the final solutions.
The Nordics have successfully implemented RF-based connectivity, with electricity meters in Norway, Finland, and Sweden. In Oslo, 920 000 meters have been deployed in one single mesh network – that’s a world record. Compared to other RF mesh-based solutions, the uniqueness here is that the meters form a decentralised network, and no extra infrastructure or extensive planning is required.
In these RF-mesh-based roll-outs, utility customers have met their timing, quality, and cost targets. This makes a compelling case to expand this communication solution to other countries. Currently, in India there is success in using the 865-868 MHz band as this market shows significant traction. What was still lacking was a global –– or at least EU-wide – available spectrum that permits RF mesh to be deployed where ISM band regulation is not in favor of enabling reliable and scalable connectivity at scale.
Now the DECT 2020 NR, or NR+ for short, the second milestone mentioned, comes into play. This may very well be the major tilting point of adopting RF-based smart metering and, later, easy, and secure integration of distributed energy resources into distribution networks. It’s an ETSI standard enabling interference-free RF mesh without duty-cycle limitations and is designed for massive-scale IoT, such as the smart meters we are discussing. It provides a commonly available 1900 MHz spectrum with sufficient bandwidth and range thanks to 23 dBm transmit power. As the meters form the infrastructure, no other infrastructure investments are needed to get the job done. It helps streamline the deployment and leads to the utility providers being in control of their own metering networks. And guess what? The standard has been accepted as alternative radio technology complying with the IMT 2020 requirements, aka 5G. A harmonised standard for facilitating the device certification is on its way. This “made in Europe” 5G standard ensures the reliability and scale we’ve been waiting for, and the market readiness of the first products is a matter of months, not years.
So here it is, the first standardised RF-based connectivity ready to use for smart metering. We work hard on this to be the next major milestone for reliable and cost-efficient smart metering and seamless integration of distributed energy resources. Flexibility on the grid edge needs this facilitation.
Wirepas and other European players were driving the standardisation within ETSI, matching the spectrum use of the globally available and license-exempt 1900 MHz band. This did not happen accidentally. It results from years of hard work on both sides – RF smart metering deployments and lessons learned and on the radio regulation side within the European institutions.
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