Smart Partner for the Broadband Dance

Innovations in utility data-tracking (now backed with federal stimulus funds) can take rural broadband efforts several jazzy steps forward.

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The Department of Energy last month announced 100 stimulus grants totaling $3.4 billion for smart grid projects. You may not be familiar with smart grids, but if your community hopes to build its own broadband network you should be. The companies now poised to build these new utility systems could be invaluable partners in supplying high-speed Internet.

Smart grids are the latest incarnation of a concept that originated in the 1990s. Utility companies then were looking for some way to improve meter reading. Instead of sending people out on foot to chart residential water, gas and electric utility meters — often stymied by rough weather, locked gates or angry dogs — companies figured that wireless technology could simplify the job.

Initially, wireless devices that sat on meters collected usage data and allowed workers driving down the road to transfer the information to on-board computers, then to servers when they returned to the office. This process evolved into an automated meter infrastructure (AMI). AMI captures data as frequently as needed from residential and community “smart” meters without human intervention. AMI makes it possible to slice and dice the data thin or thick and enables communication from the office to the meters themselves.

These capabilities help utilities cut costs, increase revenue and smooth out business operations. The two-way communication also enables utility customers to receive data to manage their use of water and energy better, a big help in reducing customers’ bills and improving conservation.

A typical smart meter, this one from Itron, that can be
integratated into a wireless network.

The success of AMI inspired utility companies and public policy wonks to dream of creating a smart grid to enhance the standard power grid that directs electric power from several central generators to a utility’s customers, and thereby to route power more efficiently. Taking things a step further are devices that plug into customers’ power outlets, allowing the smart grid to analyze and manage energy use of appliances.

What’s “smart grid” technology have to do with rural broadband? Plenty — as all of this data-flow between meters and utility companies has to move in real time across a highspeed wired or wireless network, and the physical network has to cover sizeable geographic areas.

In 2007, Milledgeville, Georgia, envisioned building a municipal wireless network to cover the town, a system that would support AMI and other applications. City Planner Russell Thompson stated at the time, “Hopefully we can tie into the network so it automatically sends readings back from smart meters to our office in City Hall instead of doing walk-by and drive-by readings. As we get it in place, we expect to move into other areas of AMI.”

As the smart meter concept gives way to the smart grid, both the geography and number of customers can expand tremendously. Whereas Milledgeville had to move data for only about 4,800 households, the smart grid stimulus grants went to utilities some of which have 500,000 customers and more. Besides those who won grants, another 300 utilities and businesses submitted proposals. I expect many of them to pursue smart grid projects even without federal grants. 

Rural communities that will be the beneficiaries of smart grid grants include Augusta, Maine; Quincy, Florida; and Rapid City, North Dakota. Click here for complete list of awardees.

There are two options for moving this data back and forth: 1) those building the smart grids can build a data communication infrastructure, or 2) smart grid operators can share an infrastructure that someone else has built or plans to build. Though the cost is about the same with either option, it’s more economical and faster for several parties to share an infrastructure.

Smart grids gather utility data from houses, aggregate them, and then send them to a back to a central office. But communications are two-way, so that households can carefully monitor their own utility use as well.

Smart meter devices generally have their data aggregated to another computing device mounted at some location in the neighborhood, maybe one aggregation point per 100 dwellings, for example. Then all of the aggregation points have to send (or “backhaul” in industry jargon) their data back to the utility or wherever else it needs to go. With the grand visions that are unfolding for smart grids, such as moving “green” energy from distant windmill farms to local customers and providing “failsafe” power when the national power grid fails, the data backhaul needs intensify. Those needs can be met with fiber or fast wireless.

A community’s broadband network can lease access on its infrastructure to a smart grid builder for backhaul. Or a utility can build its own infrastructure and determine how to make that available for local government and other institutions to lease for their use. Since many of these stimulus grants went to public utilities, local governments should have some influence in negotiating these options.

How to leverage the opportunities
Whether your community has a broadband stimulus grant proposal in the works currently, or you are queuing up to apply for Round 2 funding, move quickly to determine if your local utility received a smart grid award or was denied one. If they won a grant, meet with them as soon as you can to determine how the broadband proposal you’re working on can integrate with aspects of the smart grid project.

James Bagley, CIO of Rock Hill, South Carolina, stressed that it’s easier to integrate smart grids and broadband when you plan to do so at the outset of designing your network. “From the beginning we intended to have our Tropos WiFi wireless network and Fiber network support smart meters,” Bagley said. “We could choose any vendor whose meters support WiFi. 70% of our data goes from the meters to the WiFi network. The fiber network pulls it from there to the utility company.” He explained that the other 30% of the data is carried to the utility over the vendor’s backhaul infrastructure.

Whether or not communities win federal broadband grants, they can partner with local utilities on shared infrastructure to save costs, streamline operations, conserve energy — and boost local IT capacity faster.

Communities that survive the first phase of cuts in the NOFA funding process go into a due diligence phase during which NTIA/RUS asks them to clarify and fine-tune their proposals. Assuming the local utility is interested in incorporating your broadband infrastructure into their smart grid, use that fact to strengthen your case for the financial sustainability of your network by showing the utility as one of your main future customers.

Communities that end up not getting a broadband stimulus grant should turn the discussion with the local utility company around and try to partner and split expenses. Utilities benefit by offloading some of their overhead costs and adding a revenue stream. They, in turn, should have the customer marketing, acquisition and service infrastructure in place to be able to provide these resources to those broadband networks run by local governments, nonprofits and public-private partnerships.

Looking at this from yet another angle, some of the 300 utilities that didn’t win smart grid grants should still be motivated to partner with communities that do win stimulus money. With all of the publicity that smart grids are getting, the pressure will be on many utilities to step up and apply the new technology. Since DOE’s grant required 50% matching funds from everyone applying, you know these utilities have money to invest.

Though a lot of technological and logistical details must be worked out for a partnership of any sort between communities and smart grid builders, there are clearly significant potential benefits that can justify the effort. With stimulus funds flowing both to smart grid and community broadband endeavors, rural utilities and IT have been given a “danceable” moment.


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