Global communications methods have taken hold in the metering business, as in nearly all other business sectors. Metering solutions now capitalize on multiple technologies for walk-by, drive-by and remote monitoring services, and any combination thereof. Smart solutions make it easier for utilities to gather data and provide better, faster and more innovative services to customers. Now technically realistic, the next step is to share network infrastructure across various utilities.

Mono-utility Automated Meter Reading (AMR) networks have shown their effectiveness in the field, such as for wireless water and gas metering.  End-points communicate with each other in machine-to-machine networks that leverage everything from last mile low-power wireless technologies, including Wavenis®, with its ultra-low-power, long-range, and 2.3 million end points deployed worldwide, to SMS, GPRS, Wi-Fi and Internet connectivity. Electric meters, which by definition are already power-line networked, increasingly use power-line-carrier technology to send residential and industrial consumption data back to the head office, typically via a cellular network gateway.

An AMR system, in its most primitive form, includes meter end-points, concentrating and collection devices, network servers and the utility's meter data management system.  Robust and reliable communications are essential to connect these components. Frequently, this communications module, not the metering hardware, tends to weaken the overall effectiveness of an AMR system.

Now, by using proven technologies and operating models, the industry is poised to take another big step, pooling resources to cover multiple utilities with a single advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), giving meters smart capabilities and offering utilities wired and wireless network architecture, flexibility, reliability and the most advanced benefits.  The advent of AMI is the culmination of efforts to optimize metering investment to get the most of any given system today and tomorrow, and to share resources among and across utilities, achieving even larger-scale operational and financial efficiency.

Industry mergers and partnerships are finally paving the way for multi-utility deployment, thanks to these shared and interoperable technologies. Smart metering systems allow utilities to implement water and energy conservation measures, demand response programs, smart metering AMI initiatives and smart home solutions, resulting in significant value creation across the utility enterprise.

Part of the success of AMI comes from the increased use of cellular data services, such as SMS and GPRS. These services enable remote data access to nearly any location, via software or automatically, for entire sectors or for individual residences or buildings that cannot be easily networked with other technologies. An isolated electric meter can be equipped with a GPRS module that enables it to be accessed and configured remotely via software. Since the meter does not rely on battery power, the next step is to re-use that GPRS connection to provide full water and gas metering services at the same location.

If an AMI solution based on power-line-carrier (PLC) technology is used to link electric meters in a network, then why not also leverage that infrastructure for water and gas? Cost savings on installation, maintenance and evolution is introduced simply by avoiding infrastructure redundancy.

Elster strategy reflects market technology diversity, as illustrated by recent acquisitions of technology providers for both wired and wireless solutions. The result is active support for in-house technologies plus open industry initiatives seeking standardization, such as the Wavenis Open Standard Alliance, ZigBee, ESMIG, HAN in the UK and others. GPRS is an excellent alternative to PLC for electric meters, which utilize relatively high volumes of data transmission, but both technologies have their role to play in M2M meter monitoring.

With numerous technologies available, a multitude of installation scenarios and utility requirements, it makes sense to deploy flexible and open solutions. Battery-powered wireless connections are likely to remain the best choice for handling water and gas metering, where wired network connections are either unfeasible or unsafe. PLC and related wired technologies are well suited for electric metering. In fact, no single technology covers all communication needs from the meter to the head office. By using the best technologies for each piece, utilities can deploy cost-effective AMI solutions that meet specific site requirements while leveraging common infrastructure and sharing resources wherever possible.

These smart AMI solutions enable conservation while delivering operational efficiency, revenue protection and enhancement and unparalleled customer service, with a network that is open, interoperable and easily scalable.  Using a single network, the AMI system of the future provides multi-technology metering solutions for gas, water and electricity utilities, supporting residential, commercial and industrial applications.

A single, well-coordinated and varied product offer can cover utilities’ data collection and meter monitoring needs while providing consumers with convenient services such as more accurate billing and protection, water and energy conservation, and unprecedented customer satisfaction.