It doesn’t seem that long ago that the next big thing in metering was modular smart meters. The metering industry attended conferences and talked about manufacturers working together. Meters from Company A would have Communications Modules plugged in supplied from Company B.
Together this would provide utilities with the perfect Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) solution. A single meter from one manufacturer upgraded with a module from another. The result an online Smart Meter. Simple. No different than a PC with an aftermarket PCI Card plugged inside just like the first Wi Fi Cards for PCs. That module clicked in and everything worked out of the box. Maybe a driver installed itself but that was it. The modular smart meter had arrived and promised to be no more complex.
Utilities heard this story and got excited. From their perspective this was an attractive proposition. There were more than a few reasons for the excitement. The utility Metering Department could still buy meters from two or three preferred vendors. Another utility department could select a new communications partner. A new solution delivered without any internal utility structural changes.
The incumbent meter sales people were happy too as their utility customer hadn’t changed.
Starting The Buying Process
All the utility needed to do was to issue two RFPs. Two separate RFPs for a new network. Purchased with different commercial terms. One for Meters and another for Communications. Each released by different Departments but maybe not at the same time. The utility could decide to buy and deploy new smart meters first but with holes. Then the communications network vendor selected later. Those pluggable communications modules purchased at a future date. The communication decision could wait. That decision could be years later.
This provided the utility with a process to get ready for Smart without the commitment to go Smart. AMI Later or Smart Ready now. Also getting ready to move the network intelligence to the edge without connecting to it.
Planning For The Smart Future
The attractiveness of this proposition for the utility was considerable. It was a soft route to AMI for an industry that isn’t famous for taking risks. Better still for those utilities that required business cases for Government funding. They weren’t doing anything other than buying new meters with holes. They might have been more expensive meters but it was planning for the future. Being cautious whilst still making plans. No budget issues and no security issues either. Everything complicated could wait.
This pluggable way forward had many benefits. The meter generally has a life of 15 years but not all communications solutions last that long. So a semi-skilled engineer visits and replaces those pluggable modules later. Maybe GPRS out and LTE or Mesh or PLC in. Or the other way around. It didn’t matter. Maybe Vendor A replaced by Vendor B.
The options were considerable so this model fuelled new industries. New companies appeared as did new meters and new communications vendors with new names. This world of pluggable modules was exciting.
Standard Interfaces In The United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom was there a different story with a separate Communications Hub. Not a physical part of the meter so separate. Connected through a standards based interface. An important decision as vendors needed compliance with standards to compete. This was the result of a Government mandate and different from everywhere else. Why? Because UK homes have two meters? Maybe, but it is a complex solution which might be too much for other markets with simpler needs. That said this is rolling out in the United Kingdom.
Have Pluggable Modular Meter Decisions Stalled?
Back in the modular meter world things appear to have stalled. At least on the pluggable communications side.
Maybe it’s a lack of standards, friction between vendors or the fact the costs don’t add up. Vendors sometimes forget that for utilities to spend they need both a business case and low risk. As attractive as the pluggable communications solution is there are downsides;
Standards are rare. The integration between meter and module relies on continued vendor partnership. If one vendor changes a simple connector the other might be in trouble. The integration is generally for one version of meter and one version of module only. If one company changes something, and vendors always do, then things might not work. Who is to blame?
Regression Testing can become a real problem keeping things working as products evolve. Utilities learned it is not always possible to replace communications modules in the field. Sometimes they must be ‘paired’ with a meter back in the factory.
Modular Vendor Partnerships
Will the meter vendor be happy working with another communications vendor in the future? Without standards vendors need to share secrets about their products to integrate. This scares them and represents risk to the utility. It limits future options. Let’s face it vendors rarely work well together unless the customer manages the situation. Partnering between vendors often means complex contractual relationships. The utility may not be aware of the terms or care but this could impact their future network options. Again this is risk.
The Utility Role In Modular
When the utility doesn’t take control of vendor partnerships they expose themselves to risk. The solution is to protect themselves from this risk with penalties in supply contracts. Neither vendor will want to accept those risks. Integrated solutions can become grey when things go wrong and there’s blame. Each vendor will try to offload those penalties on the other.
Which vendor owns the utility customer relationship isn’t always clear either. Both vendors are likely to try and manage the relationship. This can leave the utility feeling caught in the middle.
Finally vendors will often creep into the others market. Each would like more slices of the utility pie so this can all become messy.
What Will Happen In The Future?
Attractive as pluggable smart meters are good business reasons exist for things having stalled. The metering industry seems to have stopped talking about pluggable modular meters. Visiting the meter is expensive. Doing that twice even in counties with low labour rates is too expensive. Even sending the semi-skilled person. The second visit will break most business cases when calculated at scale.
These are exceptions. Early adopters have benefited from swapping communications vendors without replacing the meters. One Australian utility has done this when their original communications partner didn’t work out.
What will replace those modular smart meters in the future? Maybe 100% integrated smart meters with the communications built in. Built in and not a communications PCB inside the meter next to the motherboard. One that has the communications designed into the motherboard. Integrated and sharing core components like the CPU and the PSU for initial design. Why? The cost of the meter.
The cost of that intelligent endpoint drives the need for this deep integration.
The utility will still want to keep their vendor options open. It is likely in the future utilities will play an active role in vendor partnerships. Maybe even tripartite contractual agreements. Two meter vendors with both having integrated communications from another. The communications being 100% integrated into the motherboard means the same life. The utility business case for the full endpoint becomes calculated on a 15 year life. Simple.
Of course the choice of communications cannot change without the meter changing. In reality that doesn’t happen anyway.
What will this mean to the smart metering industry? Will meter vendors leverage their incumbency to control who wins the communications integration game? Will communications vendors get chased by the meter vendors? Will meter vendors own both meters and communications with their own solutions? Will the utility drive the partnerships necessary to deliver all this?