Since Sweden introduced new legislation in 2003 requiring monthly reading of all metering points from 2009, many new entrants from different industries have focused on the AMR challenge. Larger projects have also exposed some weaknesses of the traditional techniques on the market, highlighting the critical importance of issues that may seem insignificant on a smaller scale.
So far, larger projects in Scandinavia have involved PLC and RF solutions with dedicated infrastructure networks, with GSM mostly used for communicating data from the concentrator/collector device back to the host central system. The prevailing commercial terms made GSM a last resort for communicating directly with isolated metering points that are impractical or expensive to reach.
The commercial landscape has changed dramatically during the past year and there is better general understanding of the different technologies, related practical aspects and significant costs of managing and maintaining a dedicated infrastructure network. Implementing real projects has aided understanding of what can really work effectively on a wider scale.
Most European utility companies that have installed their first residential AMR solutions chose PLC. Using the existing power network as the medium for transferring data part of the way seemed to be efficient and within their control. However, PLC functionality constraints can be frustrating, and efficient performance is often hard to deliver.
Solutions using dedicated infrastructure between the metering point and the host central system raise key questions to be addressed, such as:
- Infrastructure needed to achieve required performance levels?
- Local factors: interference, terrain, climate, need for additional materials?
- Availability and cost of expertise for planning infrastructure roll-out?
- Can infrastructure planning be verified prior to implementation?
- Availability of planned infrastructure sites (now, later, space, access, permission)?
- Safety issues to manage when installing on existing power networks?
Further variables during the life cycle of the solution include:
- Changing costs of replacing and adding infrastructure.
- Network monitoring, management and maintenance requirements, including effective and immediate disaster recovery capabilities.
- Co-ordination of AMR infrastructure priorities with grid maintenance priorities.
- Availability of infrastructure components and suppliers.
In all cases, suppliers and utilities must consider the practical and commercial realities and the implications if assumptions are inaccurate. This will impact on the risk assessment and life cycle cost estimates, which should be fundamental to the AMR solution decision-making process.
Now that mobile operators and modem suppliers appreciate the potential of the AMR market, new GPRS offerings are available that provide compelling commercial incentives to install a GPRS ‘point-to-point’ solution for most metering locations, avoiding the need to install dedicated infrastructure. These offerings are complemented by improved risk profiles and project practicalities, such as a simplified and more flexible implementation process and real-time communication feedback, to provide a more sustainable and certain future for the AMR implementation. Finally, AMR can move quickly from the pilot stage to the industrialised domain and be implemented rapidly.
Experienced mobile phone network operators, already motivated to maintain networks to high standards for the massive mobile phone market, will remain responsible for maintaining infrastructure and managing disaster recovery.
GPRS also offers optimal functionality, with effective two-way communication and interrogation capabilities, unlike many existing solutions. For utilities aiming to improve customer service and internal efficiencies, higher functionality levels could be essential for securing a strong core business position in deregulated and competitive markets.
GPRS solutions using an open standard technique can give comparable or lower life-cycle costs compared to fixed network RF & PLC and greater functionality whilst reducing future risk, with fewer practical field issues to manage.
While competition should ensure that the initial cost of GPRS solutions continues to decrease as the AMR market matures, hourly rates for field activities are likely to continue to increase. Minimising the total hours of field work required during the life cycle will be a key factor in achieving a successful and sustainable AMR solution.
GPRS is logically and economically set to evolve from a complementary technology to the preferred technology for effective AMR solutions for most metering points.