Not all “things” are equal – critical infrastructure needs a dedicated network

Neil Adams, Director, UK & Ireland at Sensus

The term “Internet of Things” covers a wide variety of different connected devices. At Mobile World Congress this year, these ‘things’ being exhibited included thermostats, warehouse technology, wearables, and even the ubiquitious connected fridge.

With so many connected devices lumped together under the IoT banner, it is important to understand that there are marked differences between them in order to build the right communications network for the purpose. Some devices are in one fixed place, such as smart meters, while wearables, for example, are constantly on the move, says Neil Adams, director, UK & Ireland at Sensus.

And while all connected devices will produce data, critical applications such as mHealth and smart utilities will produce more important data than activity trackers or some of the more outlandish proposals such as L’Oreal’s connected mascara.

There is no standard connected device, and understanding this is vital when it comes to rolling out smart utilities. All countries in the EU must replace 80% of electricity meters with smart meters by 2020. Those who haven’t yet begun this process, such as Ireland and Lithuania, are making key decisions and putting processes in place to make this happen.

Much of the success of these deployments will depend on the communication network selected. Cellular, Long Range Radio (LRR) and mesh solutions have all been used for previous smart meter rollouts. However, there are two big questions that need to be considered as part of this selection process: Will the preferred technology reach nearly every smart meter in the country without having to ‘fill in the gaps’? And will the connections to these meters be reliable enough for the data produced by the meters to produce real-time insight, and be capable of controlling remote telemetry devices?

A fundamental choice must be made with this, and with any IoT roll out that involves critical infrastructure: use the existing cellular infrastructure or use a dedicated network to carry this vital data. While IoT has gained currency as a term to encapsulate all connected devices, the wide variety of devices means that a number of connection technologies are viable for different applications – there will be no one standard.

There will be a temptation to use a cellular technology, given that the network is already in place. But this will mean some customers will be disadvantaged where coverage is poor. The nature of cellular networks mean that they suffer from ‘notspots’, areas with no coverage.

This is sometimes due to the cellular network being unable to penetrate buildings, or gaps in the network caused by the placement of hardware. In-fill technology can be used, but this increases the cost of roll-out substantially and there are limitations on where hardware can be placed. This is fine if you can walk a few feet away with a mobile device, but for fixed devices such as smart meters it is a trickier issue.

There is also the issue of rural coverage. Cellular networks work best when it comes to reaching phones and tablets in dense urban environments. Reaching remote rural areas – and especially deep into buildings where meters are located – is more challenging.

We’ve all seen the bars disappear from our phones when travelling through the country. Most countries are a combination of built-up cities and towns separated with rural land, small villages and farms so the selected technology must be capable of reaching and establishing first-time connections in all of these areas.

There are different technologies being considered to help connect the Internet of Things, but operators will need to manage massive increases in data and signalling traffic from all of these non-critical connected devices.

Critical data must be prioritised. A fitness band having to wait twenty minutes in order to synchronise its data is an inconvenience, but the data from smart meters will be used to create real-time insights to balance and maintain a vital piece of infrastructure.

Long Range Radio, on the other hand, is a utility-grade solution, offering the connectivity, reliability and security that a smart energy network requires. It is the only communications technology that can achieve more than 99.5% coverage with first time connection, through a dedicated technology.

No need for expensive ‘in-fill’ technologies to bridge the gap. It is also proven as utility-grade through roll-outs across the globe, connecting water, gas and electricity meters first time in the UK, Germany, China, the USA and many others. These rollouts show Long Range Radio to be a technology that works already, rather than one that’s predicted to work.

For a smart meter project to be fully successful means selecting a proven communication network that will cover close to 100% of the population regardless of location or building style, be totally secure and expand to accommodate future applications. Expecting smart meters to be just another ‘thing’ means fundamentally misunderstanding the diverse requirements of connected devices- that some data is of limited importance, and some will be of critical importance.

The author of this blog is Neil Adams, director, UK & Ireland at Sensus.

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