Summary:

Itron and Tropos Networks say they can roll smart meter neighborhood networks and backhaul networks into one system, and they’ve landed Michigan utility DTE to try it out.

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Most smart meter networks are actually two networks — the local-area networks that meters use to talk to one another, and the networks that connect neighborhoods back to the grid at large (called backhaul), usually via cellular connections. But Itron and Tropos Networks say they can roll them all into one, and they’ve landed Michigan utility DTE Energy as a customer.

DTE’s $168 million, 800,000-smart meter deployment will be the first to use an integrated Itron/Tropos system that the two companies launched last year. It combines Itron’s OpenWay 900-megahertz meter-to-meter mesh radios with Tropos’s blend of municipal WiFi, point-to-multipoint and long-range wireless communications — in other words, a complete meter-to-utility network.

Chalk the deal up to utilities’ increasing desire for an integrated smart grid. Most smart meters today use 900mHz mesh networks much like Itron’s for local networking, but use different “backhaul” networks to reach utilities’ grid control rooms and back-office IT systems.  Where possible, utilities have used existing cable, broadband over powerline or dedicated radio communications to carry that traffic.

But cellular networks have taken over much of the backhaul duty for utilities deploying smart meters, where utility-owned networks weren’t available or cost effective. AT&T, Verizon and Sprint are all in this backhaul smart grid space with utility contracts. As for integrating backhaul and meter networks, Duke Energy is trying out concentrator boxes from both Ambient and SmartSynch in partnership with Verizon.

Itron and Tropos, in contrast, have combined two radios into one in Itron’s “Integrated Cell Router” product, and DTE will manage the entire network over Itron’s OpenWay network management platform. Anything that makes utility grid operators’ jobs easier will likely be welcome by an industry that’s hiring the likes of IT giants like IBM and Oracle to help them manage all their new smart grid technology.

Itron has also worked with Ambient, SmartSynch and Cisco on so-called “connected grid solutions” aimed at integrating smart meters with backhaul systems. Smart meter mesh network provider Trilliant is working on a similar cross-utility scope, adding long-range capabilities, which it got from acquiring SkyPilot in 2009.

Tropos and Itron are doing more than connecting smart meters, by the way. DTE’s new “SmartCurrents” project will also use Tropos’ routers to link about 200 distribution grid devices — switches, reclosers, and other devices that need reliable and low latency connections to operate properly.

Smart meters tend to communicate about once every 15 minutes, and up to eight hours per day — not a crushing burden for cell networks. Whether public networks should be relied on to operate critical grid infrastructure, on the other hand, is a big debate in the industry right now.

It should be noted that DTE has already deployed about 300,000 Itron meters using a different backhaul network, presumably, cellular. But it will be installing many more using the Tropos backhaul, which offers “greater reliability,” as well as more functionality, like mobile workforce IT support. Tropos has worked on distribution grid communications with Washington state utility Avista, but it’s not alone in trying to combine smart meter and grid communications into one — Silver Spring Networks is working on a similar project with AEP Ohio, for example.

Image courtesy of petekraynak via Creative Commons license.

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