SET Blog: Musings and Insights

Smart Water Networks and the Future of AMI

Many water utilities continue to evaluate the costs and benefits of investing in smart metering to reduce operational costs and help recover revenue from water losses. Smart metering can also provide customers with more granular consumption data to help them protect their property from water damage and better manage their water expenses.

While water suppliers continue to build business cases to justify the typically large capital expenditures necessary to deploy a system wide smart metering platform, a potentially bigger question has emerged relating to the type of communication technology the utility should select.

Historically a water utility would select a vendor to provide both the metering technology and the communication network infrastructure. While this approach had the benefit of a single point of contact responsible for delivery of an entire system, it didn’t take into account all lifetime cost-of-ownership factors, or the possible redundancy that was created due to overlapping communication systems within a single municipality or geographic region.

Communications Networks are Foundational
Ultimately, the crux of an AMI system is a reliable communication network. There is a phalanx of vendors approaching various departments within a municipality trying to sell communication technologies designed for typically narrow applications. It is increasingly common to find a city whose energy utility has their own proprietary fixed wireless network for delivering electric or gas consumption data while the water utility builds out its own, separate network for effectively the same purpose. This uncoordinated approach is leading to system redundancy and unnecessary costs for cities. 

Of course, the vendors of these communications networks would love to maintain the status quo as it gives them the opportunity to sell more network equipment, software packages, and data plans to different departments within the same municipality.

What alternative, then, do cities have other than to take the recommendation of their various legacy providers of meters, streetlights, and trash bins? The answer is obvious. Who specializes in building out massive, reliable voice and data communication networks throughout the world? Telecommunication companies of course.

“Who specializes in building out massive, reliable voice and data communication networks throughout the world? Telecommunication companies of course.”

Telecom Commitment to the Future
Companies such as Verizon and AT&T have spent billions of dollars over the past couple of decades desperately trying to keep up with customer demand for higher quality data services for the omnipresent smart devices that we carry around in our pockets. But the prize is bigger than just consumer services. The major telecoms recognize that investments in their networks can be used for a new class of applications beyond consumer communications. Municipalities are the next frontier of growth and the prize is substantial for the winners. These companies are now clearly vying to become the communication infrastructure providers for the Smart City of the future. There are billions of dollars of revenue at stake and they are taking the challenge very seriously.

Of course, along with this new opportunity comes some fresh challenges. The devices and sensors deployed for many Smart City applications are no longer dependent on high speed data networks. Also, cities expect that the investments they make in smart sensor hardware will deliver value for decades, not just a few years.

The Telecoms understand these requirements and have embraced new network technologies that can deliver on these capabilities to win Smart City business when competing against legacy water meter and network technology vendors. Along with this commitment to new technologies, the Telecoms also recognize they will need to maintain backward compatibility with these new communication protocols for the expected lifetimes of the various sensor equipment if they expect to win the municipal business.

“Telecoms recognize they need to maintain backward compatibility with new communication protocols over the expected lifetimes of utility sensor equipment if they expect to win the municipal business.”

This reality is a sea change from the previous generation of cellular network solutions for smart metering which were not aligned with the business models and long-term economic incentives of the cellular network providers.

Flexible Communications
Fortunately, the selection of a communication backbone for a new AMI system is not an all-or-nothing proposition for water utilities to contend with. It turns out that many emergent communication technologies can actually work in concert with each other. For example, while a wireless network may use LoRa for device-to-gateway communications, the backhaul portion of the network, or how the gateway communicates with the central control system or master database, may use standard cellular communication services.

Another strategy being deployed is to deploy LTE-M endpoints for a majority of water meters where cellular coverage is ubiquitous, but deploy a select number of LoRa gateways for remote locations where cell service may be less reliable. The best-in-class AMI endpoints support multiple radios in the device design which allows them to communicate over more than one network, and even dynamically switch between networks based on the best available communication signal.

The best-in-class AMI endpoints support multiple radios in the device design which allows them to communicate over more than one network”

This means that a water supplier can afford to experiment with a variety of technologies that provide flexibility and broad service territory coverage as long as the IoT devices they select for their meter registers are capable of supporting multiple standards.

What all of this leads to is the unavoidable conclusion that, at minimum, there is a viable and cost-effective alternative to the traditional approach of building proprietary fixed-wireless networks to support the deployment of Advanced Metering Infrastructure for water utilities. Not only does this new approach prove to be more cost effective, but it’s also more rational from the position of nearly any water supplier. Utilities are structured to procure, treat, deliver, and bill for clean, potable water. They are not staffed with electrical engineers who are experienced at designing, building, and maintaining wireless communication networks.

In the increasingly complex world of sensor data, analytics software, water loss monitoring equipment, condition assessment tools, and a host of other technology-driven solutions, it no longer makes sense to take on the additional cost and hassle of the communication network. A better alternative is to outsource this increasingly commodity service to vendors that are best suited to affordably deliver and maintain the service. Complexity inextricably leads to increased specialization and water utilities have enough on their hands as it stands. If we all acknowledge our strengths and continue to invest where we provide the most value, we can leave the rest to the folks who have dedicated their careers to addressing a different set of complex challenges.

This is the way of the modern world and leads to higher quality, lower cost, and more satisfying outcomes for both water utilities and their customers. While the benefits of specialization have been evident for a long time, with the advent of a new class of sensor and communication technologies at our fingertips, this approach to building the future of water utility management is more important than ever.

To learn more about the future of AMI for water suppliers, download our white paper:

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