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Summary:

Despite attempts by companies and industry groups to paint the wireless standard Wi-Fi (the one commonly used within buildings for Internet connections) as a winner for smart grid rollouts, it’s looking like Wi-Fi will end up taking a back seat for the next generation of the […]

WiFiAllianceDespite attempts by companies and industry groups to paint the wireless standard Wi-Fi (the one commonly used within buildings for Internet connections) as a winner for smart grid rollouts, it’s looking like Wi-Fi will end up taking a back seat for the next generation of the digital power grid. This morning the trade group the Wi-Fi Alliance looked to drum up attention for the use of Wi-Fi for the smart grid, and announced the publication of a white paper called “Wi-Fi for the Smart Grid.

While the paper provides interesting information for potential Wi-Fi power grid communication applications, here’s five reasons why Wi-Fi will play a lesser roll for the smart grid, both within the home and further out on the power grid.

1). ZigBee in Da House: Wi-Fi’s most valuable role in the smart grid will be found within the home, given the bulk of home wireless networks are based on Wi-Fi. But most device makers building energy management tools and smart appliances, as well as utilities, are concentrating first and foremost on transmitting energy information via the low-power, low-data wireless standard ZigBee.

ZigBee might not be the perfect technology for home energy applications, and in fact Wi-Fi could be a better fit for energy info in the home. But the reality is that ZigBee has started to receive a critical mass of vendors and developers leaning on it for home energy. Wi-Fi will clearly play a role in home energy management as a connection layer (connecting to the ZigBee network and the broadband connection via a gateway), but Wi-Fi chips will likely be embedded in less home energy gear and fewer smart appliances than the Wi-Fi industry would like.

2). WiMAX for Wide Area: Wi-Fi companies, like Tropos, are touting the wireless standard for wide area applications, like connecting smart meter information to the utility back office. The companies and the Wi-Fi Alliance say that because Wi-Fi is an open standard, and has a large ecosystem of vendors involved, the cost to deploy the technology is very low. While that is definitely true, utilities are more quickly turning to the open wireless standard WiMAX for those benefits.

Over the past few months utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric and Australia’s SPAusNet have chosen WiMAX as the wide area network of choice for their smart grid deployments, and have been encouraged by the growing ecosystem of players including Intel, GE, Motorola, and startup GridNet. While that ecosystem isn’t as mature as the Wi-Fi ecosystem (and thus far more expensive) WiMAX players say the costs will start to drop in the near future.

3). The Way of Muni Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi has already been tested in a wide-area setting: as a third option (in addition to cable and DSL) for Internet access in cities. But oh wait, that didn’t work at all. While the technology works great in buildings and homes, when it gets outside in a large network customers found that the network quickly got impacted, suffered from interference and just plain wasn’t reliable. That’s one reason why companies like former muni Wi-Fi maker Tropos are now targeting the smart grid, because the bloom just plain fell off the muni Wi-Fi rose.

4). Interference!: That brings me to a major problem with Wi-Fi: interference! The technology runs over an unlicensed spectrum and is commonly used throughout cities for home broadband connections. Utilities, which will be transmitting important information about the health of the power grid, energy consumption and generation information, won’t be too keen if their signals clash with the many Wi-Fi networks scattered around the place.

5). Security Concerns: While Wi-Fi can be pretty secure with software and encryption these days, utilities, which have higher security requirements and harbor many fears about security, will have major doubts about the security of Wi-Fi. SDG&E’s Director of Network & Communications Services, Jeff Nichols, told me that the utility decided to use WiMAX for a third of its network partly because WiMAX offered a very secure connection over licensed spectrum (Wi-Fi is unlicensed).

Image courtesy of the Wi-Fi-Alliance.

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  1. Why are these sorts of articles always loaded with this sort of apples-to-oranges comparison? It glosses over the fact that WiMAX & other protocols potentially face the same issues.

    More specifically, there’s always this sort of basic claim of “Unlicensed Spectrum makes Wi-Fi untenable for the wide-area” (certainly problematic). Yet, WiMAX can ultimately suffer from the same set of problems! WIMAX is just another transmission protcol & technique, it does not offer access to licensed spectrum by definition. What spectrum do utilities have access to? Maybe none…

    Bottom line. If you’re a network operator with access to licensed spectrum — you can simplify management & improve performance of the network by using it. To contrast this to an unlicensed solution seems irrelevant.

  2. “ZigBee in Da House”

    SERIOUSLY?

  3. home use and utility corp are applpes and eggs comparasion. Sure there are similar issues irregardless the frequency. Much foundation work was done in Bell labs for telex lines. That’s where Shannon applied the infamous 1 and 0 and early compression. Fundamentals are pretty fixed. Spectrum allocation, the wiles of FCC, players wanting their dog in the fight, and other users mixed together mean the real world apps and outcomes are a ‘fubar’ at best.

    “Hi Honey, I’m home. whats for dinner?”
    “nothing, the house crashed and I had to call a tech to reboot it. He is busy until next week sometime, but the bar-b-cue has some briquettes…”

    And,someday, they will be cracking security codes for the house, running up utility usage in the offseason and assorted smartgrid games.

    900mhz is already a mess! noise of things to come

  4. Can someone explain to me why utilities aren’t feeding data over their power lines?

    Why go outside to wi-fi/whatever when you’ve got a great big pipe already that’s connected to everything involved?

  5. I should probably clarify that Wi-Fi and Zigbee share the same 2.4 GHz spectrum. However its possible for Zigbee/802.15.4 to use channels that Wi-Fi isn’t allowed to occupy.

  6. It’s true that standards-based Wi-Fi is not a play for outdoor WAN space, wireless mesh (using Wi-Fi radios) is. Wireless mesh is not standards-based – all mesh vendors have a proprietary implementations, which increases throughput, improves interference mitigation, reduces noise, etc. Specifically, mesh in 900 MHz spectrum (not 2.4 GHz typically used by consumer Wi-Fi devices) is one of the options for street-level connectivity – for connecting data collection units to utilities’ backhaul.

    The argument for “WiMAX dominance” leaves out a big part of the story; the licensed WiMAX spectrum is owned by operators, and we’ve seen what utilities’ reaction is to the idea of having to depend on operators for their critical communications. So are the current WiMAX projects done via unlicensed spectrum? Then the same challenges apply – interference, other parties using the spectrum, etc. In fact, wireless mesh in 900 MHz spectrum may be better equipped than WiMAX to deal with street level connectivity.

    But I do agree that Wi-Fi’s forum’s promotion of “standards” is faulty, given that the solutions utilities are looking into for WAN & street level connectivity is proprietary wireless mesh.

  7. 802.15.4 is winning in the home for two main reasons. Cost, there are no wifi SOC chips. It is $15 to build a wifi solution and $6 to build 802.15.4. Multiply that times the number of light switches in a house. Availability, 802.15.4 radio vendors are open with their documentation and hardware interfaces. You can buy 802.15.4 from distributors. Go see how far you can get designing a wifi chip in with less than $1M in volume.

    Wifi could have owned this market. The chip maker’s policies are causing them to lose it.

  8. RM – InBoundMarketingPR Friday, November 13, 2009

    Great article, I now know more about wi-fi than I ever wanted to know. Great article that shows all the different possibilities and concerns that need to be considered by the energy companies!

    For more info on energy management visit ~ Titan Energy http://bit.ly/vfQkc

    Thanks!

  9. On behalf of Tropos, I’d like to address several discrepancies in this article. First, the market for municipal wireless broadband networks is alive and well. Tropos has more than 750 customers – primarily municipalities and utilities, successfully using our networks today for a wide range of applications that provide value within these communities. In fact demand for broadband networks is continuing to grow, in part spurred by the ARRA and national broadband initiatives underway. In your article, you state that Tropos has abandoned selling our products to municipalities – not the case! We announced earlier this year that we have expanded our market focus to now include selling solutions for both Smart Grids and Smart Cities.

    Tropos has been selling products to municipal utilities for more than 5 years providing backhaul for smart meters (and several other smart grid applications such as power quality monitoring, outage management, SCADA, and substation security). When I refer to smart meters, I’m including those used for water, gas and electric. We estimate our networks are being used to read over 600,000 meters today with approximately 60% of those being AMI (two-way communications).

    You cited interference as a major problem with Wi-Fi. While the criticism is valid for Wi-Fi generically, it frankly doesn’t even make our top-five list of technical challenges due to technological advances we have made to our products. Finally, we agree that security is an important consideration for networks supporting critical infrastructure, and Tropos sets itself apart from other Wi-Fi vendors with FIPS 140-2 certification and NERC CIP compliance and has implemented a multi-tiered security architecture to provide customers with the stringent security needs of critical infrastructure communications.

    To learn more about Tropos’ Smart Grid and Smart City solutions, please visit http://www.tropos.com.

  10. Katie Fehrenbacher Friday, November 13, 2009

    Thanks for all the comments and feedback guys. I’d like to address a few things. First I wanted to reiterate the point of the article: I think WiFi will clearly play a role in both the home and the utility network space — just that it will have a far lesser role than the WiFi Alliance and companies selling gear in the space would like people to believe, and other wireless standards will play a more important role.

    To @Marty and @Ksenia, I agree that WiMAX and proprietary standards for WAN and zigbee for the home have their own set of issues.

    To Denise from Tropos, I didn’t mean to imply that Tropos “abandoned selling its products to municipalities,” just that the company is now heavily targeting the smart grid market, and muni WiFi was a term that was hot to use several years ago, but now isn’t. I’ll cross out “former,” as I can see how it is confusing. I’d also like to add that from the perspective of watching the market for muni WiFi products boom and bust between about 2005 to 2007, I think the muni WiFi industry has clearly not reached the potential that many had expected. But yes, Im sure there is some business and revenue still being done in that area.

    1. Katie, I believe you are correct in your assumption of Tropos and other firms like them. I know of two communities that they were to provide wifi coverage that they backed out of. These firms come in a try to create a market and when they get the utility to agree and help with some of the infrastructure, the city markets it to the people and when not enough people sign up, when the firms contract is up they leave and the city is left holding the bag. The best thing a utility can do is buy the infrastructure themselves (inexpensive for the piece of mind) and maintain themselves. Then there are no questions on using a intermediate firm to get your information. Also there is product out there that is FCC single licensed for use by utilities so there is no interference.

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