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9 November 2018

Bluetooth and Cat-NB creeping into smart meters via u-blox and Telit

Smart metering has typically depended on legacy cellular and proprietary RF protocols for its WAN needs, and Zigbee for the in-home-display (IHD) functions. But with the rise of LPWAN, the former is shifting fast, while the latter could be heavily disrupted by the adoption of Bluetooth – providing a direct link to a consumer’s smartphone, without the need for an IHD.

The announcement from module vendor u-blox, in collaboration with smart metering firms Iskraemeco and EMH, caught our eye, as the trio announced a proof of concept that uses Bluetooth Low Energy as the data link to power a customer visualization application. The goal is to show customers how they are using energy, for both current and historic data, which can let them improve their efficiency.

The trio argue for standards like Bluetooth as a way to foster interoperability across the supply chain. They say that the PoC shows how customers can get more from their meters, which are often tucked away in difficult to reach locations. They add that the smartphone is a better way to visualize data than the screens on meters, in a more compelling manner to help consumers understand their usage.

It is worth adding that the smartphone application also allows utilities to update the customer experience without having to replace an IHD, and of course, cutting out the need for an IHD should also reduce the deployment cost of smart meters for the utilities. u-blox also points to the new Bluetooth Mesh feature as way to extend range, if needed.

Of course, using Bluetooth could actually bypass the need for WAN to some degree. It would be foolish to completely rely on a consumer’s phone to backhaul your metering data, but such an architecture could possibly offload some of the heavier traffic from the WAN network – for which you might be paying a considerable amount in operator fees, if you do not own your own private WAN network.

u-blox also points to Bluetooth as a way to interact with smart home devices. Senior Product Marketing Manager Stefan Berggren said “the inclusion of a Bluetooth low energy interface will also make it possible for smart meters to connect into a local Smart Home environment that could enable value‑added services, such as temperature and humidity monitoring for customer locations and second homes.”

The smart home is still an uncertain battleground for the low-power protocols. Zigbee and Z-Wave have enjoyed success in the past, but as Amazon and Google become the main drivers for the smart home at scale, the lack of Z-Wave and Zigbee in the Echo and Home platforms could push device vendors towards the radios on hand – which are Bluetooth and WiFi.

Consequently, the mass-market smart home, which might only consist of a dozen devices instead of the triple-figure deployments provided by professional installers (which heavily feature Zigbee and Z-Wave) looks likely to forgo the likes of Zigbee and Z-Wave. Thread is also apparently still a thing, but that ecosystem looks very slow.

The CSPs have collectively been very slow to seize the Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS) market opportunity, but utilities are well-positioned to set up shop in that sector. Focusing on HVAC services initially, a utility could easily move into selling lighting and even security services and devices to its customers – greatly increasing its stickiness and lowering its churn.

Of course, utilities will be looking to demand-response (DR) as a way to revolutionize their operations, and this will require some degree of control over energy-drawing devices within a home. A smart home platform is the easiest way to facilitate this dynamic control over energy demand, but it might make more sense for the utilities to pursue partnerships with the likes of Amazon and Google, rather than create a SHaaS offering as a means to an end.

u-blox rival Telit also caught our eye this week, announcing a deal with Comsel System, which will use the Telit ME910C1-E1 module in Sweden, running on CK Hutchison’s 3 LTE Cat-NB network. The pair say this is among the first commercial Cat-NB deployment for metering, and claim ‘decade-plus battery life and reliable connectivity deep inside buildings and underground.’

Of course, Cat-NB and LTE-M are now viable options for smart metering, thanks to the updates they received as part of the 3GPP’s Release 14 specifications. The Power Saving Mode (PSM) and Extended Discontinuous Reception (eDRX) were the main improvements, and there have been a number of announcements from suppliers and vendors that claim to have cracked the ten-year threshold.

Comsel CEO Kristian Heimonen said “in this project, Comsel System delivered Zodiac smart metering terminals with support for NB-IoT/M1. In addition to the NB-IoT/M1-terminals, Comsel also delivered Zodiac 3G-/4G-terminals for smart energy metering. The solution gives the customer a Service Level Agreement (SLA) of up to 100% and has a high degree of security. The Telit ME910C1-E1 module is included in these products.”

Telit is pretty proud of its pin-compatible designs, which allow companies to quite easily upgrade their existing designs. Yossi Moscovitz, President of Products and Solutions, said “it highlights Telit’s brand promise of delivering next-generation IoT solutions quickly and cost-effectively. In this case, going from a 3G xE910 to NB-IoT with little more than a drop-in of the ME910C1-E1 for Comsel to capture the emerging market opportunity with the advanced state of the NB-IoT in the Nordics region of Europe.”

In metering, particularly electricity metering, the Licensed LPWAN (L-LPWAN) offerings face a lot of pressure for the likes of Wi-SUN and LoRa, which offer the chance to have a dedicated private network – and forgo paying a service provider a per-device fee. There’s a balancing act at play here, as the L-LPWAN production volumes look set to outpace the U-LPWAN rivals, and so the hardware costs of L-LPWAN could eventually come to a point that can justify paying the connectivity fees.

That decision-making process is going to be unique to each utility. Wi-SUN is an excellent choice for electricity metering, and LoRa seems to be quite popular among water metering. Each utility is going to have different opex-vs-capex strategies, which will affect the decision to pay for a network or build a private one. A private network would better facilitate additional applications and services, and could eventually turn a utility into a smart city service provider. There’s a lot of balls in play, and it is far from clear how things will shake out.