Silver Spring survey conveniently says mesh beats cellular for utilities

Silver Spring Networks has released a new survey saying that 65% of utilities will use RF mesh networks in the next decade, as utilities use IoT technologies to cut costs and modernize their business models. RF mesh is just one of a number of communication network solutions available to utilities, which also include fixed line, cellular and LPWAN – support for which is shown to be far lower by the survey, and not surprising given that Silver Spring is the largest vendor of RF mesh networking technology (based on Wi-SUN).

The survey was conducted by Zpryme, and involved 350 respondents from global utilities. However, we take issue with the use of “global” here, as just 1% of respondents were from Asia and only 10% from Europe. Some 78% of the respondents were from North America, and the survey also seems to disproportionately represent electric utilities (49%), compared to gas (18%) and water (11%).

So while the survey is interesting, and definitely useful, it is important to bear those biases in mind. Electric utilities do not face the same power constraints as their gas and water counterparts, as they can rely on having an electricity supply to power their meters – while water and gas meters do not. Connecting those meters will require extremely careful consideration of power supply and consumption, whereas an electricity meter can mostly circumvent those concerns.

Having a power constraint is likely to change the utility’s perspective on which communication technology it would want to use, as having to regularly change an endpoint’s battery could increase truck roll costs – potentially negating the business case of installing a connected meter in the first place

Reliable information is hard to come by on the varying power consumptions for RF mesh technologies compared to cellular rivals – such as 2G, 3G, and the newer LTE-M and NB-IoT options. The meshing technologies tend to use higher broadcast outputs, which are more power intensive, and the network topology can have a significant impact on the amount of hops a message might have to make to travel. The FCC regulations are generally more favorable for higher power outputs.

The regional context of having most of the respondents being from North America also skewed the results in favor of support for RF mesh. Had a higher proportion of respondents been from Europe, it is unlikely that RF mesh would have received quite so much endorsement.

The range of RF mesh is also determined by the spectrum regulations, and this has complicated development in Europe as some countries, like Germany, have chosen not to follow the same unlicensed spectrum regulations – constraining the range of RF mesh and acting as a helpful advertisement for LPWAN in those markets. It’s not a clear-cut debate, unfortunately.

European regulations lack a UHF license-exempt band equivalent to the 902-928MHz that Silver Spring’s RF mesh technology uses in the US FCC regulations, meaning that the technology is not feasible in some parts of Europe. For more details on this, UK regulator Ofcom’s response to the 870/915 UHF spectrum release consultation is a good read.

As for the points of note in the report, one of the major upshots for IoT stakeholders is that 83% of utilities felt that their communication networks are at least somewhat ready to support the changes in the next 5 years – although Sliver Spring chose to highlight that only 6% said they were extremely ready.

The survey also dived into to just how utilities planned to leverage their communication networks, finding that distribution, fault detection, and advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) were the leading use cases to be supported by distribution networks.

Some 52% of respondents believed that their communication networks would be increasingly made up of a mixture of in-house and public networks within the next 10 years compared to 39% today.

The survey also outlines which technologies the utilities plan to use for connectivity, Fiber Optic tops the list (74%), followed by RF Mesh (65%), Wi-Fi (48%), Public Cellular (41%) and Private Cellular like LoRa and Sigfox (32%).

These findings suggest both private and public cellular technologies will play a lesser role in the utilities’ future networks than might have been otherwise expected. Again, it’s worth pointing out that Silver Spring is in direct competition with those cellular alternatives, and that the survey’s findings are rather convenient for its narrative (although it is certainly a leader in the Wi-SUN utility and smart city markets, thanks to the merits of its tech).

In terms of the priorities for utilities when addressing connectivity, the study found that connection reliability (91%) is the most important factor for a utility considering a network deployment, followed by cost (78%) and security (75%). When it comes to different connectivity modes, utilities have concerns surrounding cybersecurity with legacy communications networks – and are also concerned with issues of obsolescence and system maintenance.

Silver Spring Networks was recently acquired by rival Itron for $830m, and the deal demonstrated the enviable health of the company. In 2016, Silver Spring generated revenues of $311m, with a gross margin of 44%, and ended the year with $1.2bn order backlog. Silver Spring has a lead in terms of deployments with some 27 million RF mesh connections made, predominantly with utilities.