By Pieter Wijnmaalen
Utilities, AMI suppliers and regulators are starting to appreciate how industry structure, institutions and regulation either help or hinder AMI in general and technology choices in particular. Across Europe we see countries where both regulation and industry structure favour sharing communication backbones, such as in The Netherlands and Germany. A more monolithic approach is preferred in France. The debate in the UK focuses on the ERA specification, but maybe more importantly, the so-called franchise model is being discussed as a necessary condition for large scale deployment of AMI.
However, practical issues in each country interfere with intended outcomes. For example, Dutch water companies have concerns and face difficulties reaching an actual sharing of electricity and gas AMI infrastructure. They are now about to pilot a stand-alone, fixed wireless AMI solution.
On the other hand: why wouldn’t GDF Suez consider sharing an AMI gas and water infrastructure? Leading water service companies, such as Groupe Saur, have chosen to go for large scale deployment of a water-only RF AMI solution. The above does not even touch on the complexities of sharing and synchronising AMI data between increasingly unbundled grid operators and suppliers. New solutions, such as separate Energy Boxes connected to AMI infrastructures, will become available. These boxes, along with customer or in-home displays (IHD), are being developed by suppliers, and increasingly by telcos themselves. But are these devices going to be economically viable (either directly by consumer charges or perhaps by advertising)?
However many similarities there are between the telecom and AMI business architecture, few telcos (with the exception of Telenor Cinclus) have been able to come to terms with the utilities’ need for long-term control. This may change now that M2M is increasingly visible on the radar and telcos continue to seek new sources of revenue. One critical aspect that telcos need to adapt for AMI is the SIM cardbased business model (in terms of technology and pricing schemes). Also, telcos need to appreciate that the average revenue per user (ARPU, a key metric in the industry) will not be nearly as high as in the mobile consumer market. And last but not least: how long will GSM/GPRS be supported?
Utilities need to make a level-headed tradeoff between the need to control the communications infrastructure, and lowering cost by sharing it with other utilities, with the obvious loss of control that this implies. This is not easy either: in a consolidating industry, today’s partner can be tomorrow’s competitor, and vice-versa. Choosing a communication infrastructure (HAN, LAN, WAN) for AMI is therefore not all that simple. There is a dizzying array of evolving technology combinations (PLC, GSM/GPRS, Wavenis, ZigBee) with protocol stacks that are being standardised (for some time now). Utilities therefore need to consider scalability, “future proofing,” and they are hedging their technology bets by using multiple technologies.
AMI will have a profound impact on industry structure and its boundaries. It can be argued that the likes of Elster are the natural AMI solution providers for utilities. When all is said and done, utilities will want to deal with strong and reliable partners that can be counted upon to be around in 10 or 15 years. There simply are relatively few other obvious candidates around with this ability. Software providers are generally too small and system integrators and contractors are unwilling to share and manage the considerable risks in large scale AMI deployments.
But nothing can be taken for granted in the dynamic and sometimes chaotic AMI universe. Any player in this arena needs to look in the mirror and ask the question: Who AM I?