Machine-to-Machine Technology Keeps the Lights On

Electricity is essential for us to function in our everyday lives. We are so accustomed to flipping a light switch, we sometimes forget the behind the scenes technology that enable our lights to stay on.

Oct 1st, 2012
Berkeley Varitronics

By Scott N. Schober

Electricity is essential for us to function in our everyday lives. We are so accustomed to flipping a light switch, we sometimes forget the behind the scenes technology that enable our lights to stay on.

There are over 4 billion incandescent bulbs in the U.S., representing one-third of the world's lights. Technical innovations have provided ways to efficiently generate and distribute electricity over the grid. The smart grid is getting smarter as electric utility companies use the technology to automatically react to the demands of customers. Much of the modern smart grid provides real time monitoring of water, gas and electric use as opposed to averaging peak consumption as was done with early smart meters. As newer, non-fossil technologies emerge-such as solar and wind-there is a need to control and monitor bidirectional energy flow as these renewable technologies are added. Advanced digital technology, coupled with wireless networks, allows this to happen quickly and efficiently.

To report data back in real time, utility companies are relying on existing Wide Area Networks (WAN) that mobile phones use. Utility providers do not require voice or high-speed data such as with smart phones-data is sent in short data packets with a Machine-to-Machine (M2M) 3G modem. The M2M technology has been integrated into a low-cost, single transceiver module that transmits and receives data similar to mobile phones. Since the data payload is small, there is minimal impact on the carriers' networks-allowing them to add millions of cellular 3G modems registered to the network, which provides an additional revenue stream.

One challenge many utility providers face when mounting wireless cellular modems to their infrastructure is determining which carrier-Verizon, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile-has the best coverage at a given installation point. This is important because utilities typically sign a five-year contract that may cost $10-$20 a month for a data-only plan. Choosing a carrier with marginal coverage might initiate a customer complaint, which requires costly and time-consuming troubleshooting. M2M 3G modems often are in remote places that do not have easy access, adding to the frustration.

A second challenge is finding the best physical installation point of the antenna used to communicate to the neighboring base station. Finding the ideal spot to permanently mount the antenna will maximize the M2M signal coverage and allow for a reliable installation that will withstand the elements.

To answer these two challenges, Berkeley Varitronics Systems has developed the Squid Pro M2M installation tool. The Squid Pro has gained widespread adoption by energy utility providers and is an important tool for M2M installation and maintenance. Prior to the release of the Squid Pro, many installation teams resorted to carrying multiple mobile phones and using the number of bars as indication of the carrier that has the best signal coverage at a given installation point. The Squid Pro eliminates this guesswork.

As the technology continues to advance, the utility industry will find ways of more effectively controlling the electric, water and gas infrastructure. Installation technicians will rely on wireless technologies such as M2M communications and tools such as the Squid Pro to keep the lights on.


About the author: Scott N. Schober is the president and CEO of Berkeley Varitronics Systems Inc.

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