Over the years we have become somewhat immune to telecoms companies' hype about new technology. We've been hearing about WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi and other obscure terms over the past few years, with big promises of how they will revolutionize the way we work and play. This immunity is, of course, perfectly understandable as most of these proclaimed technologies simply haven't delivered. Indeed, some haven't even made it to market.

We've been hearing about WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi and other obscure terms over the past few years, with big promises of how they will revolutionize the way we work and play. This immunity is, of course, perfectly understandable as most of these proclaimed technologies simply haven't delivered. Indeed, some haven't even made it to market.

One technology which has made it to market is GPRS – General Packet Radio Service. GPRS is an extension of the GSM technology we've been using for a few years and, as such, benefits from having an existing network which avoids the need for a lengthy deployment phase.

What is GPRS? It is a means by which data can be packetised and transmitted across the GSM network in much the same way as data is transmitted across the Internet. The packets of data are tagged so that they can travel to their destination by any available route, depending on the availability of bandwidth, to be re-assembled upon arrival for presentation to the intended user. In essence, every device will be ‘online' and will be able to send/receive data at any time, in the same way as a server connected to the Internet.

In common with all new telecoms technologies, GPRS has been promoted enthusiastically, with claims of data speeds of up to 85 kbps. While it may not actually achieve such transfer rates in practice, GPRS will offer significantly greater throughput than the 9600 bps GSM offers today. More important, though, is the fact that data sent or received via GPRS will be charged in terms of cents per kilobyte rather than by time-based call costs.

So what will this do for AMR? With utilities, particularly electrical utilities, already heavily invested in GSM modems for meter reading, what advantages will GPRS offer to justify the re-evaluation of meter reading methods and the consideration of upgrading to GPRS? The answers to these questions are driven by two important aspects of GPRS – the cost structure and the speed of transmission.

Consider the typical remote reading of an electricity meter. Although the meter may be gathering data every 30 minutes, it is usually read every 24 hours, as it is currently too expensive to read the data more than once a day. The data is processed for billing purposes and may also be sent to other parts of the utility's organisation as historical data for use by network planners, operations or energy training staff. Although the data is available, the cost of gathering it limits its usefulness.

With data gathered via GPRS costing one or two cents per kilobyte – less if you can get a good deal with your telco – it matters little whether the data is read once per day or one hundred times per day. With the exception of whatever protocol ‘overhead' might be involved in the data communication, the amount of meter data will be the same. This affords the possibility of using the publicly available GPRS network to collect the data in almost real time. Not as fast as a high speed radio or fibre-optic network, perhaps, but still fast enough to be able to provide useful dynamic information to areas within the utility to enable operational and energy trading decisions to be taken proactively.

Another possibility presented by GPRS is load shedding. With energy transmission networks operating close to their maximum capacity and with energy trading now a big part of the Australian energy market, the ability to disconnect significant loads in almost real time will allow for more efficient energy use and help to defer capital expenditure. In the current market, every little competitive advantage helps.

GPRS has been available to mobile phone users for a while, but there has been little fuss made about it. Now that the first GPRS data products are becoming available, pennies will start to drop when people, especially metering data agents, realise that the data they already collect will become so much more valuable when they can make it available for non-billing purposes on an almost real-time basis. As is the case with bread, you can find more customers when it's fresh!