AMI industry has been lately waiting for a reliable yet cost effective communication “pipe” enabling utilities to run their applications, something that finally seems to be on rise in the wake of Internet of Things.
It seems to be quite evident that the paradigm shift is going to fundamentally change how traditional players are doing business. Hence if they react passively and conservatively, then it might be at cost of their exitance.
On the other hand, and with almost no exception, one of the main verticals that IoT players always have taken it as “granted market” was indeed AMI. Nevertheless, and despite having all such ambitious plans, there is no solid strategy from telecom vendors and MNOs to penetrate into AMI market.
Can telecom giant vendors dictate how AMI-IoT (referred as AMIoT in this article) market should be shaped out? In absence of understanding entire AMI ecosystem and knowing and managing its stakeholders, the opportunity can simply turn to a failure. IoT vendors are poised to proactively re-engineer AMI Value Chain in their favor; else the business opportunity remains as a wish.
IoT is an irreversible trend in utilities, however selecting right communication “pipe” is becoming a real challenge as it’s not about technology, but business process changes. Means whether to outsource ICT As a Service, (call it Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), OPEX oriented approach) or to build and run owned communication and IT infrastructure (CAPEX oriented).
Thanks to NB-IoT/Cat-M1 module price declining and rapid IoT coverage enhancement by MNOs internationally, it’s predictable that Electricity Smart Metering industry will soon be witnessing radical change subject to understating AMI ecosystem by MNOs as well as by module/chipset makers.
Therefore, dealing with new powerful stakeholder called MNOs is becoming a challenge, which utilities might dislike but soon need to get in use and find common interest to deal with.
1. The AMIoT Communication Pipe
NB-IoT and Cat-M1 (LTE-M) Release-14 can easily cover all needs of communication “pipe” of Smart Grid. Thanks to its UL 160Kbps and DL 120Kbps speed, NB-IoT is quite suitable for 1Phase meter. Cat-M1 can also perfectly satisfy the rest of Smart Grid communication needs as its latency is about 100msec. Moreover, UL speed can reach up to 1Mbps. This easily covers almost all Smart Grid’s Use Cases except Alarms and Monitoring (RTU), which requires higher bandwidth and very low latency (please refer to table-1)
Communication tariffs are also becoming very attractive while NB-IoT/Cat-M1 coverage are enhancing rapidly across continents (Figure-1).
As there are almost one billion electricity meters in operation across the globe, question remains unanswered why Smart Grid players are still reluctant to leverage on NB-IoT/Cat-M1 Mobile based IoT (MIoT)? The rest of this article tries to find an answer to above riddle.
Figure 1: Expected MIoT coverage by March 2019 (source 3GPP)
2. Conventional AMI Value Chain
Smart Meter hardware is a “thing” but AMI ecosystem comprises different components and most importantly companies and “people” with all their technical strengths, networks, references, success stories, and even political influences. While most of IoT verticals are targeting B2C market segments, AMI is B2B (and even B2G in many regions) where majority of MNOs have limited success stories in those area knowing that only few percentage of their total revenue comes from B2B/B2G segment.
Figure 2: Conventional yet well established “AMI Value Chain”
The AMI standards have been developed mostly based on IEC standards such as IEC 62052-1, IEC62053-21 &22, IEC 62056-21, IEC 62056-53 (COSEM) etc some of them aging more than 10 years obviously updated on regular (annual) basis. Those bulky standards are “hardware oriented” and make the smart meter a complex and standalone hardware with capability of measuring, registering and most importantly processing a few dozen parameters.
The SoC Energy Metering chipset covers metrology functionality as well as a processor equipped with adequate memory (EROM, RAM) capacity. The chipset producers release new SoC every two-three year supported by a reference design and source code of its firmware.
There might be hundreds meter manufactures across the globe. Most of them are targeting domestic markets, and many belongs to electromechanical era. As we have been witnessing for digital metering market, Smart Meter hardware is also going to be soon categorized as mostly commoditized product and would soon generate a very limited margin for the manufacturers. 20 years ago, electromechanical meter manufacturers could had enjoyed a secured market with almost no competition domestically since complexity of production line was a very difficult “barrier to entrance” to overcome for any new player. Something today is very much meaningless, hence forced most of meter manufacturers to produce other electrical and electronic devices and equipment.
The giant international smart metering players however have already moved toward mostly solution provider covering backend software (AHE and MDMs) as well as system integration (project management, rollout etc). Their objective is to generate more revenue than being only simple meter manufacturer. While such business is mostly ICT, they have to transform their business process and sometimes need to be vertically integrated with other players through acquisition of talented ICT companies.
In access layer the communication pipe is built through PLC-Prime, G3-PLC, RF-6LoWPAN (Mesh network) and possibly broadband PLC (Hi-PLC), all terminated at Data Concentrators normally installed beside distribution transforms (figure 3).
Figure 3: Hierarchical AMI Architecture
Although MNO/Telco are considered to be part of AMI Supply Chain but definitely not in the Value Chain as they only “supply” connectivity (pipe) in between Data Concentrators and AHE/MDM, which even can be replaced by utilities backhaul in case they have one.
The conventional Value Chain looks very much straightforward and robust however; likewise, many other traditional businesses, may not sustain forever and soon would have to experience some radical changes.
Although above describes Electricity AMI but can be well mapped out for Water and Gas smart metering as well.
3. IoT-AMI Value Chain
IoT promises to offer reliable and economically viable communication pipe. However, IoT is not about quality of communication in between devices. It’s supposed to revolutionize how we live and do business. Figure-3 illustrates the value chain whilst IoT solution is incorporated in AMI.
Seems to me a fishbone not a chain!
In the first place IoT solution providers would have to “sell” their solution to Smart Meter vendors and only through them they can gain access to utilities as ultimate buyers. Obviously by leveraging on such complicated model, IoT based AMI may not dominate the market.
Figure 4: AMI-IoT Value Chain
3.1 Technical Challenges
Smart Meter hardware is not “a thing” but in fact it’s “two things”:
1. Metrology and processing
Through evaluation process digital meter becomes Smart Meters. Due to lack of communication, the digital meter was forced to prepare data for meter readers’ perusal. DLMS/COSEM protocol and for instance Open Meter standard, even enhanced this capability further made the smart meter a “tiny computer” with a bulky firmware and capability of measuring and saving a few dozen parameters. For instance, ToU (Time of Use) normally has got multiple Tariffs (even up to 24 per day in some meters) distinguishes day of the week/month/year (and lips year and so called moving holidays), thanks to built-in full-fledged calendar. As per IEC standards, Smart Meters should detect/calculate/register other parameters such as tampering, frauds, THD, OBIS Codes, line frequency, meter events, quadrant power factors, reactive power (again per complicated tariff mentioned above) export/import energy, load balance etc etc. Table one is a snapshot and part of a very long list of parameters in a table which is itself part of an AMI RFP. The bidders should comply with all spec before submitting the offer.
Table 2: A snapshot, Smart Meter Technical spec
In other word the 1st “thing” in Smart Meter is a relatively complicated “machine” which generate huge amount of data and obviously consumes bandwidth to transfer them to MDM through so called IoT pipe. Philosophy behind such approach was simple. Meter should be an independent and standalone device hence in case utilities faced lack of communication pipe, then still should be able to provide all parameters through its optical (serial) ports to an HHU and even to human through relatively its large LCD screen.
I am not going to criticize such approach since personally have experienced lack of proper “communication” in multiple occasions, forced us to read meters on spot. I assume this situation is going to change thanks to IoT since at least both NB-IoT and Cat-M1 are promising technology in term of offering bandwidth and required latency.
3.2 Non-Technical Challenges
Many technologies have not succeeded due to non-technical disadvantages. As mentioned, conventional Value Chain has been well established. We may point out a few non-technical issues for newly introduced AMIoT Value Chain:
• Engineering department and Smart Meters R&D mostly well attached to sales and marketing people of SoC providers. Needless to add that all SoC chipset providers also offer communication modules (mainly PLC) as well, hence as far as meter developers are concerned there is “one stop shop”, providing two chip sets, plus a reference design and more importantly basic firmware. Now, moving forward and suppose that smart meter developers decided to use MIoT devices instead of, for instance PLC-Prime, they need to receive SoC from Texas Instrument whilst NB-IoT/Cat-M1 device from Quectel to be integrated in their meter. Hence two sets of firmware should be developed by meter developers.
• IoT solution providers would offer a key component called “Device Management”. Device management is supposed to monitor and maintain IoT devices and restart it remotely whenever deemed required, Firmware upgrade, device health, battery status etc would be part of device management features. In MIoT world device should be fully autonomous and controlled by MNOs in order to make it free maintenance from user point of view. Above means that Smart Meters would be equipped with a communication “pipe” which have to be controlled by MNOs and not by AMI solution providers. Something that conventional AMI solution providers would dislike it.
• There is and will be ongoing debate in between IoT solution providers and AMI conventional players about migrating all processing being carried out by Smart Meters to the Cloud. IoT players would argue that sending very basic raw data would enable them to generate reports/actions that utilities and consumers may not even dream it today. Smart Meter players would respond that such approach will destroy their foundation and loss 10+ years efforts developing hardware and firmware. Moreover, such new method might not fulfill IEC standards, considered as utilities’ Bible.
In a nutshell it can be claimed that there is little common interest in between AMI players and IoT solution provider to mutually cooperate.
4. Transformational IoT-AMI Value Chain
We have found that AMIoT value chain depicted in figure-3 may face certain constraints for implementation. Thus, an immediate question will come in mind about possible alternative. Figure-5 proposes a solution which offers a “vertical integration” simply meaning that MIoT chipset/module vendors also offer metrology in their chipset/module as SoC/SoM. Alternatively, meteorology chipmaker can integrate NB-IoT/Cat-M1 communication modem in their chipset.
Such approach would make life much easier for MNOs to approach utilities as a “Smart Operator” and offer them a turnkey and so called “One Stop Shop AMI solution”. Combining communication and metrology would further simplify the supply chain and make so called “Plug & Play Smart Metering” a commercialized product.
Figure 5: Transformational AMI-IoT Value Chain
5. Quectel IoT Solution for metering
As appears Quectel BC95-G/ BC68, BG96 and EG91 (LTE Cat1 to be used for RTU) are quite suitable modules to cover the entire Smart Grid technical requirements globally.
Currently BG96 Rel-13 NB-IoT/Cat-M1 modules are widely available successfully receiving certificates from many MNOs such as Verizon, TELUS, Telstra, to name a few.
BG96 is global multimode Cat M1, NB-IoT and EGPRS module with integrated GNSS, offering a maximum data rate of 375Kbps downlink and 375Kbps uplink, fully compliant with 3GPP R13 of LTE Cat M1 and Cat NB1 specification.
BC95-G/BC68 are also very cost-effective and field proven NB-IoT modules, supporting Rel-13 with future proof firmware upgradability to Rel-14.
BC68 is a high-performance NB-IoT module which supports multiple frequency bands of B1/B3/B8/B5/B20 with extremely low power consumption. The ultra-compact 17.7mm × 15.8mm × 2.0mm form factor makes it a perfect choice for size sensitive applications. Designed to be compatible with Quectel GSM/GPRS M66 module in the compact and unified form factor, it provides a flexible and scalable platform for migrating from GSM/GPRS to NB-IoT networks.
As 1st mover Quectel is well positioned to support meter manufacturers by its NB-IoT BC95-G/BC68 as well as BG96, multimode NB-IoT/Cat-M1 modules which can support global spectrum as well as offering richest possible communication protocols.
“One Stop Shop AMI solution” advocates that an integrated chipset supporting both communication and metrology, combining with eSIM and built-in communication tariff by MNOs, can be a game changer in Smart Metering. AMI industry is eagerly awaiting such cost effective SoC/SoM to support the requirements. Obviously Quectel will be ahead of others to support his customers globally.
3GPP: 3rd Generation Partnership Project unites [Seven] telecommunications standard development organizations
AHE: AMI Head End
AMI: Advanced Metering Infrastructure
AMIoT: AMI based on IoT
CAPEX: Capital Expenditure
CIoT: Cellular based IoT
eSIM: Electronic SIM card
IoT: Internet of Things
LTE: Long-term Evolution
MDM: Metering Data Management
MIoT: Mobile based IoT
MNO: Mobile Network Operator
NAN: Neighboring Area Network
OPEX: Operational Expenditure
PLC: Power Line Communication
QoS: Quality of Service
RFP: Request for Proposal
ROI: Return on Investment
RTU: Remote Terminal Unit
SLA: Service Level Agreement
SoC: System on Chip
SoM: System on Module
THD: Total Harmonic distortion
WAN: Wide Area Network