Ultra-Narrowband Networks by A. Michael Noll


Ultra-Narrowband Networks

A. Michael Noll

May 14, 2016

© 2016 AMN

The rush is on for more and more wireless bandwidth and broadband systems, as the world embraces 5G, perhaps on its path to the ultimate 10G. But in the rush to broader broadband communication, a need for considerably less bandwidth should not be overlooked.

There is attention today to the “Internet of things” – whatever it might ultimately become. The vision today is appliances at home, items in stores, and even clothes all telecommunicating information.

One example is communicating information to control lights in a home. But is takes only one bit to tell a light to be on or off – and this communication might occur only a few times over a 24-hour period. The average bit rate would be about 0.1 milli bits per second (0.0001 b/s). Controlling appliances might take a little more, but would still be miniscule.

This would be a very local network at a very low bit rate – ultra-narrowband communication over very short distances, requiring very little power. It would be a cloud – or fog — within the home of ultra-narrowband communication, perhaps wireless or perhaps over the power-line.

There already is 60 Hertz electromagnetism within the home from the power lines in walls and sockets. Perhaps this ultra-narrowband communication could somehow ride over that 60 Hz cloud. Or a new form of Bluetooth might emerge.

The “things” on utility poles – transformers – need to be monitored remotely. They are already connected to the 60 Hz power line, and could use it to telecommunicate, again at low bits rates.

At a time when all attention is focused on more bandwidth, particularly mobile bandwidth, the new opportunities might be in the opposite direction. Innovation sometimes comes from challenging the accepted wisdom of the day.

A. Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll

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Are “Smart Meters” a Costly Diversion From the “Smart Grid” We Really Need?


I recently read a paper entitled “Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid” by Timothy Schoechle. Though the paper’s primary focus is the electricity industry, it seems a fitting topic for the Quello Center blog because it raises important questions about how best to use information and communication technology to support a sustainable energy system that addresses the increasingly urgent issue of climate change and other environmental challenges we now face.  And it does so in a way that challenges conventional wisdom regarding the massive and costly deployment of so-called “smart meters” now underway across the country.

The paper’s core argument, as I understand it, is that the nationwide smart meter deployment catalyzed by the 2008 federal stimulus bill is actually a step in the wrong direction. This is because it supports a continuation of utilities’ existing reliance on:

Instead of deploying utility-controlled “smart meters” (which, as he explains, are 20+ year-old technology originally designed to reduce meter reading costs and aren’t really very smart at all), Shoechle advocates a different approach to addressing climate change and transitioning as quickly as possible to a sustainable energy infrastructure. This approach would focus on and combine:

A key question, according to Schoechle, is who controls the gateway device linking end user premises to the electrical grid. In his view, the electric utility industry should look to the model created years ago in the telecom sector:

The demarcation between monopoly utility space and customer market space was clarified over two decades ago in the case of wire-line telephone monopolies with the decisions and policy changes culminating in the divestiture of AT&T. One result was enormous…growth in new markets for premises equipment and services. The electricity grid today is facing the same demarcation inflection point as the telephone network experienced. The gateway belongs to the consumer, not to the electric utility. A demarcation and opening of the consumer premises space to market competition could unleash the creative energy of the consumer electronics industry, the home appliance industry, and others. Full two-way smart grid communication among premises-based systems, products, and services—facilitated by a consumer-controlled gateway device and already available data services (i.e., Internet and Web access via DSL, cable, fiber, etc.) —would free the smart grid from the stifling control of utilities and their proprietary meter-reading networks.

Part of the problem, explains Schoechle, is that one of the stimulus bill’s central goals was to spend money fast. At that time, the networked digital meters being deployed were the only off-the-shelf technology available to quickly absorb the bulk of the budgeted investment in a “smart grid.”  And dubbing them “smart” meters made this budget allocation seem all the more reasonable (if we need a “smart grid,” then “smart meters” sure seems like a good place to start).

Since it allowed them to retain control of the next generation of customer-premise equipment while expanding the cost-basis on which their profits are calculated, utilities (and the vendors from whom they were buying the devices), embraced the large scale deployment of these meters. And, to most politicians and citizens, it sounded like a sensible (though not well understood) step toward a future “smart grid,” especially when federal stimulus funds were available—but only for a short time—to finance the purchase of whatever form of “smart grid” technology was available at that time.

Schoechle paints a very different and more problematic picture of the stimulus-financed rush to deploy so-called smart meters (bolding for emphasis is mine):

The [smart] meter networks squander vast sums of money, create enormous risks to privacy and security, introduce known and still unknown possible risks to public health, and sour the public on the true promise of the smart grid. Data to be collected by the smart meters, including intimate personal details of citizens’ lives, is not necessary to the basic purpose of the smart grid—supply/demand balancing, demand response (DR), dynamic pricing, renewable integration, or local generation and storage—as promoters of the meters, and uninformed parties, routinely claim. Instead, the meter data is serving to create an extraneous market for consumer data mining and advertising (i.e., “big data” analytics)…

[S]mart meters have failed to deliver smart grid benefits for fundamentally technical reasons. Examples include that 1) the networks do not generally provide full two-way communication, 2) customer usage display was, in most cases, of stale data (24 hour delayed) on a third-party website—on-site real-time display is not feasible using most meter backhaul networks—and 3) smart meters and their networks cannot or are ill-equipped to implement demand response load control strategies…

What is almost always assumed or alluded to by meter advocates, but never explained, is how reading meters, however frequently, can serve the goals of functions of the smart grid—i.e., balancing supply and demand. Never explained is how granular personal meter data helps manage the grid. It is believed by some that consumer electricity usage behavior data may be useful to utilities or to consumers. But it is not clear how such data would actually be applied, nor is it clear that there are not cheaper and more benign ways to acquire it. SCADA  [supervisory control and data acquisition] networks already provide utilities with the aggregate transformer or substation load data needed to assess distribution loads and conditions. A premises meter is not needed, or would be impractically cumbersome to use, to aggregate data to derive distribution grid load information. 

Schoechle sees a different path leading to a truly smart and sustainable electric power grid.  As he explains:

[M]anagement of premises demand response, supply/demand balancing or control/monitoring of solar systems, electric vehicles (EVs), or batteries would be better accomplished by distributed control through intelligent energy management devices and transactional control strategies. What is needed is not meter data flowing out of the premises, but rather grid load, time-of-use signals, or electricity transactional data flowing into the premises so that the premises can manage its own energy. This would require full two-way communication via a gateway with premises-based equipment such as home automation systems (HA), smart inverters, smart appliances, energy management systems, etc. that do the job of managing energy on-premises.

Present day meters do not provide such a gateway. The meters generally do not provide data directly to the customer, but rather upload it to the utility, which may or may not provide it later to customers via a third-party web portal (usually delayed by at least 24 hours). Customer usage displays would need to be real-time or near real-time to be useful to consumers and even then the best displays are no substitute for premises-based automated energy management equipment that would act on behalf of consumer priorities and do so entirely within their own homes…

In another section of the paper, Schoechle provides more detail about what he sees as a true “smart grid” and how it can shift our electricity usage away from fuels and systems that contribute to climate change and pollution and are not sustainable. Unlike the widespread but superficially-driven enthusiasm for today’s “smart” meters, his perspective strikes me as grounded in an understanding of problems associated with current utility practices, what keeps these practices and problems in place, and what’s needed to change the practices and fix the problems.


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