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Contender For U.K. Smart Meter Rollout: Game On

SmartReach, a joint venture comprised of several tech and communications companies, has developed communications technology for the U.K's planned smart energy meter project.

We now know that the U.K.'s plan to deploy a national smart utility meter replacement program has been pushed back at least a year. Most reports about this potential £11 billion ($17 billion) attempt to create a smart grid center focus on the politics and commercial side – but what about the technical side?

After all, since the U.K.'s energy suppliers offer national, not just regional, coverage, the communications systems would ideally cover all 94,000 square miles of the country. Another challenge comes from the fact that much of Britain's housing is Victorian or Edwardian -- if not Georgian -- which means that communications signals will come from devices that are often in less-than-ideal radio locations such as cellars, underground, or in garage spaces with brick perimeters.

A company called SmartReach says it's cracked the basics of this challenge, even as it acknowledges that there's a long way to go to test and integrate the full system before it goes live. (The tentative launch date is now penciled in for 2020, though many commentators quietly caution that could slip at least a year.)

SmartReach is a joint venture set up specifically to bid for the communications layer of the smart meter stack. The entity's backers are British comms infrastructure stalwart Arqiva, dominant local telco BT, defense and aerospace player BAE Systems Detica and U.S. smart meter provider Sensus, whose technology is crucial to the firm's proposition, according to David Green, business development director for the JV.

[ For more on the U.K.'s smart meter plan, see Britain's 'Smart Meter' Project Delayed. ]

"The smart meter program in Great Britain is aiming to achieve a wider range of outcomes than projects in other countries," Green told Information Week. "We therefore need to provide highly reliable, secure, real-time data and enable innovative software downloads, such as time of use tariffs."

Green added that the scale and speed of the British smart meter project is also unusual, as it aims to replace more than 50 million meters in around 30 million homes and small businesses in just 5 years. "We also want all British consumers to benefit from smart meters, so not be excluded simply because they live in remote rural locations, or even in dense urban areas where their meters are impossible to reach using existing communication systems," he said.

Green and his organization have combined the Senus core technology -- which he says has never been deployed for populations over 10 or 12 million customers -- with innovative approaches that mesh the signal with existing or planned radio and TV transmitter pickups around proposed new meters. According to Green, this approach offers the greatest chance of secure, reliable pickup.

To install new smart meters in more than 99% of existing locations with no special solutions such as external antennas, a relatively low radio frequency -- around 400MHz -- will be used, along with special modulation techniques to ensure that the signal penetrates deep within buildings. Overlapping coverage, so that most meters are connected to more than one radio tower, should provide a high degree of resilience and ensure that customers enjoy excellent service through the 15-plus-year life of the meters.

What about meters that are placed in challenging parts of the property? According to Green, in such cases the firm will utilize a feature of the Sensus technology called Buddy Mode. Should a meter be unable to connect directly to the network, it will look for its nearest neighbor and the signal will be relayed back to the system. Green says this technique establishes connection rates of over 99%, as shown in a recent trial in Scotland. In another trial just outside London, SmartReach demonstrated the effectiveness of a long-range radio-based network by connecting 1,600 meters, including difficult-to-reach underground meter locations.

In terms of the communications network itself, Green said that to minimize delay, or latency, the company will deploy a dedicated private network that will multicast messages to a defined group of homes -- for example, telling residents that they can save money on their power bills if they commit to use power for some usages only at defined times. To protect the security of data transmissions, this will be a closed network, with no public points of access. Meanwhile, the actual meters themselves have been designed to consume as little power as possible; SmartReach claims they can be powered for more than 15 years by a single small battery.

Green said, "We spent the past three years developing the system, have run extensive test and pilot deployments to prove that the technology can deliver the aims of the program and we believe we are the only organization to have achieved this."

It will be interesting to see if the technology will be enough to get a highly complex and potentially risky smart large-scale infrastructure plan from drawing board to reality. Even Green admits that years of testing need to happen now to make sure the entire smart meter stack really can work together, and his firm is just one component of it. "You have to have everything work -- from the meter connecting to the comms layer to the data transmission layer to the retailer's [utilities'] IT systems," Green said. "So, yes, we need to time to bed this in -- but when it comes, the smart meter system really will work."

Urban transformation requires IT innovation. Here's how five U.S. cities are forging ahead. Also in the new, all-digital Future Cities issue of InformationWeek Government: Video surveillance provided valuable clues to the Boston Marathon bombings, serving as a lesson to other cities. (Free registration required.)

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