Major Australian utility to use public mobile network for smart meter communications

By Colin Goodwin, Ericsson South-East Asia and Oceania strategic marketing manager

At the recent Smart Utilities Conference in Melbourne, in November 2013, Victorian distributor SP AusNet announced it has been working with telecommunications giant Ericsson to develop and implement a 3G public network-enabled communications solution to support its electricity smart meter program.

While the public mobile networks have been used by utilities and specialised energy service providers for many years, the SP AusNet initiative is the first in Australia to use a public network for large scale residential smart meter reading, management and control.

Smart meter roll-out

In 2006, the Victorian Government was the first state government in Australia to mandate the implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) to Victorian electricity consumers. The roll-out involves the replacement of accumulation or manually read interval meters with remotely read smart meters in approximately 2.2 million Victorian homes and 300,000 businesses.

SP AusNet is the electricity distributor for much of North and Eastern Victoria. Following the Victorian Government’s decision to implement AMI, SP AusNet commenced deploying the key infrastructure elements for AMI in 2009, with a goal of establishing around 700,000 smart meters, communications infrastructure and an end-to-end IT system.

The solution selected at that time used a common meter management system (MMS) and a private WiMAX network connecting to modular meters.

This existing private communication solution now covers around 85 per cent of SP AusNet’s network. However, it was not considered a suitable solution for the remaining areas to be serviced and a request for information was issued to seek alternative models utilising a third party telecommunications network.

The Ericsson solution was selected and SP AusNet is currently extending its existing smart meter footprint with Ericsson’s solution to reach more than 100,000 meters not previously accessible by their private network.

Innovative solution

This project is quite innovative in that is the first in Australia to combine an existing public operator’s 3G network, a smart meter with a hot swappable 3G communications module, an enhanced meter management system and the system integration required to pull it all together (see diagram).

The system integration aspect is of special interest in that SP AusNet wanted to ensure the AMI capabilities were the same irrespective of the communications technology used.

SP AusNet had previously selected the Grid Net meter management system to operate across their private WiMAX network. Consequently Ericsson was responsible for ensuring the meter management system was enhanced and proven to work over 3G. This required careful project management by the Ericsson project team to co-ordinate development and testing work between Grid Net and the 3G module manufacturer. Indeed, multi-partner co-ordination and project management was a key aspect of the entire project.

Benefits of using public 3G network

At the Smart Utilities Conference, SP AusNet’s director of market services Simon Hastings pointed out the use of the public networks had been considered when they first started their AMI roll-out, but at that time they were more expensive to use than a private network.

Since then, however, prices for using the public networks have dropped considerably, making the use of public networks more cost-effective than private wireless (WiMAX, RF-mesh) or wired (PLC) networks. While the economies of using a public mobile network are an important benefit of the Ericsson solution, there are other benefits.

• Using an existing public network allows rapid speed of deployment. In fact, once the MMS and back office is in place, the meters can be deployed almost anywhere, without having to wait years for a private network to roll out and cover the desired location.

• These public mobile networks already cater for the secure transport of data for a whole host of everyday activities such as online banking and, as such, standards and security protocols are already in place to cater for smart grids and smart metering.

• The performance of the mobile networks (today’s 3G and increasingly LTE) is superior in throughput and latency to other wired (PLC) and wireless (RF Mesh) technologies.

• The public mobile networks are based on globally ratified international standards and are delivered by a massive global ecosystem, which offers innovation, choice and the economies of scale resulting from competition amongst hundreds of module and equipment manufacturers. In particular, the approach taken by standards bodies ensures backwards compatibility, making the solution future-proof.

It was important the solution being used by SP AusNet was designed to work with any meter manufacturer, module manufacturer, or mobile network. The 3G smart meter modules have been designed, developed and manufactured to fit into the smart meters chosen by SP AusNet, however, the design can be modified to work with other vendor’s metering solutions.

Ericsson perspective

Since the Victorian Smart Meter roll-outs began, Australia’s energy use patterns have changed considerably, with total average residential and business energy use steady or declining while high peak demand continues to be a concern. This has driven utilities to focus even more strongly on their business costs.

Also, while the early stages of the meter roll-outs were in dense urban areas – the lowest cost areas to service with a private network – the final stages are in less dense rural and outer urban areas which are far more costly for private networks.

Regulatory change in Australia, and particularly the changes proposed by the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) in the Power of Choice initiatives, will encourage the supply and control of smart meters by other market players, notably general and specialised energy service providers. As these organisations consider how to cover large and often diverse areas quickly, building new-dedicated private networks would not be commercially viable.

Looking towards the future, the inevitable progression towards smart meters being used for gas and water utilities (and other new energy services in the future such as electrical vehicle charging) will ensure more and more use of the public networks for meter connections and similar Machine-to-Machine deployments.