There’s a lot of debate within the industry about who owns Smart Energy. Is it the utilities? Is it the consumer? Will it be Google? Until now, nobody has spotted who the real owner is, but at last it can be revealed – it’s the ZigBee Alliance. They quietly trademarked the phrase “Smart Energy” in the US last December. So if you make any Smart Energy product using any form of wireless, it may be time to get your cheque book out.
Although they may seem strange bedfellows, both the mHealth industry the smart metering industries (both favourite children of the technology world), are facing the same problem. Both are moving from a world of almost no data to data overload of a level they never imagined, even in their worst nightmares. Whether it’s from an annual health check or a visit from the meter reader, both are used to getting one data point per customer per year. The advent of connected sensors means that is changing to anything up to one reading per second.
It’s a bit like the case of a child who has hitherto only been allowed chocolate on Christmas Day. Now they’re being led into a chocolate factory and told they can eat as much as they want. The inevitable result is a very happy child for a few hours, until they’re violently sick. At which point they either vow never to eat another chocolate, or learn to treat it in a more sensible manner.
Today the medical industry and energy utilities are being shown the doors of the chocolate factory. We have yet to see how they behave once they enter it. Some may emerge as triumphant Charlies, but others risk becoming the commercial equivalent of Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt.
This week was an interesting one for smart metering announcements. Accent – a Franco-Italian semiconductor design house announced their smart meter on a chip, prompting Jesse Berst of Smart Grid News to enthuse that the “Smart Metering Business has just changed for ever“. Sorry Jesse, but I don’t think so. Elsewhere, in Providence, Rhode Island, New England hackers were convening at QuahogCon to discuss the security of standards. The two announcements provided a good demonstration of the gulf between the promoters of smart metering and the reality of the state of the standards they intend to use. In the same week, ZigBee closed its call for comments on the Technical requirements Document for its Smart Energy Profile, giving the impression that the standard is not far from completion.
The gulf between the enthusiasts and realists is wide. It is worrying that much of the industry is rushing blindly towards deployment, with little understanding of the risks and what can be done to mitigate them.
One of key mantras I keep on hearing repeated when security of the smart meter is raised is “why would anyone bother to hack it?” Josh Wright, talking about ZigBee security at QuahogCon hit the nail on the head when he answered that. “As an attacker, ZigBee lets me interact with the real world – that’s exciting. I can interact with a dam, or natural gas distribution lines. We’re looking at a wireless protocol that lets us interact with real things in the real world – it’s not just credit cards.” The industry forgets the excitement that comes from “because I can” and “real things” And it only needs a few people doing that to fuel scare stories that will kill the whole industry.
This week, at the Bluetooth annual All Hands Meeting in Seattle, the final draft of the new Bluetooth low energy specification was made available. Last December, the core specification for the low energy radio was adopted, allowing silicon vendors to start their production process, so that chips would be available as soon as the rest of the specification is adopted. This week’s release allows software and application developers to begin work on designing the new ecosystem of products that will be use Bluetooth low energy.
Outside the confines of the technical working groups, Bluetooth low energy is still a fairly well kept secret. Yet it has the potential to overtake Bluetooth usage in just a few years, growing to a volume of multiple billions of chips per year. It is the only wireless technology that has the potential to challenge and surpass the shipment volumes of cellular. Yet even within the Bluetooth community, there are many that have not yet understood this potential.
One of the reasons for that lack of understanding is that Bluetooth low energy is a wireless standard for a new generation of applications. Every previous wireless standard comes from the mindset of being a cable replacement which connects devices that never change their behaviour. That is true even if there’s a mesh involved. And it’s the way that most products were designed until a year or two ago.
Two things have changed that. The first is the concept of machine-to-machine communications where products connect directly to the Internet. The second is the emergence of the Apps store, where handset owners can download and install new features every day. Bluetooth low energy has a new architecture that fits both of these models. Even more importantly, it allows them to converge. As such, it is the first wireless technology designed for the second decade of this century. Here’s why…
Yesterday’s announcement by British Gas that they are about to deploy 2 million smart gas meters is probably the most important move that the smart energy market has seen. There are two things that make it significant.
The first is the fact that British Gas understands data. Back in 1995 they were the first corporation in the world to roll out GSM data connectivity to all of their service engineers. They’ve kept on quietly pushing the leading edge of technology ever since.
The second is that they are a major player in a market that has been deregulated for many years. They know that they need to persuade customers to stay with them and that those customers have a choice.
Both are skills that are markedly lacking in many of the other trials we have had around the world. If anyone can prove that smart metering will work it’s probably going to be British Gas. In a week where an Associated Press report poured scorn on the security of smart meters, and shortly after the PG&E billing fiasco, the industry needs some good, solid evidence of where smart metering really is. Compared to this deployment, everything else may look like rank amateurism. This will be the one to watch.
Are our governments really serious about Smart Metering, or are they just throwing money away as a political gesture? Increasingly it looks as if it’s the latter. Barack Obama just made a headline announcement that the U.S. Government is prepared to waste $3.4 billion putting smart meters into 13% of U.S. homes. The reason for my cynicism is a lack of standards, particularly with respect to the choice of a wireless specification to link the meters with each other and to appliances around the home. The current choices are not based on any understanding of technology, rather than lobbying by companies desperate for funding. As a result, there’s a strong chance that these meters will not work.
I was at the Wireless Congress in Munich last week and listened to at least four different wireless standards explain why they’re each the best choice for smart meters. Not one of them was really convincing. Most had slick marketing presentations, but underneath, there are some very good technical reasons as to why NONE of the current pretenders are the correct one to choose if we really want smart energy to work.
The critical problem is the choice of the 2.4GHz frequency band, which is where most of the contenders operate. Ten years ago that portion of spectrum, known as an Industrial Scientific and Medical band (ISM) was virtually empty. Microwave ovens used it, but only for a few minutes each day. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee were all still dreams. It was like a freeway built before cars arrived. Today it is already congested and each new evolution of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi eat up even more of it. In another ten years, which is before the Smart Meter rollouts will even have been completed, it is likely to be at a standstill.
Smart Metering is an initiative that will cost billions of euros / dollars to install and which needs to continue to work for a lifespan of twenty or more years. All of the prospective wireless technologies being considered for use in Smart Meters operate in open frequency bands that are likely to be heavily congested before the smart meter installation program is even started. To use this spectrum for something as critical as smart metering is folly.
If Smart Metering is going to provide benefits, it deserves its own wireless spectrum and standard. It’s not too late for regulators to set aside spectrum and for standards bodies to get together to produce an optimal standard. If they don’t, we risk wasting trillions of dollars and failing to achieve any reduction in energy consumption.