Meters to drive Wi-Fi

Ontario’s electricity smart meters could jump-start plans for a sprawling meshed IP network that will connect the entire province wirelessly, initially by Wi-Fi and, as the technology becomes more widely embraced, ultimately by Wi-Max.

Lawrence Surtees, director of telecom and Internet research and a principal analyst at IDC Canada, believes every indication points to a sophisticated, nomadic wireless Ontario broadband network within five years.

“There’s a huge, crowded field of interested parties out there. We’re seeing spectrums of (Wi-Max) bandwidth being snapped up by Rogers Wireless, Telus, Bell, SaskTel and Primus. In Canada we’re looking at potentially five national blocks of frequency,” said Surtees.

With Intel predicting Wi-Max ubiquity by 2007-08, and mass commercial availability by the end of 2006, Ontario’s timeline for a smart meter network by 2010 is not unrealistic, says Surtees. “Clearly, Ontario Energy is looking at Wi-Max for the province’s smart meters,” he said.

The Ontario Energy Board was issued a request for proposal by the Ministry of Energy to implement smart meters. When asked about the Board’s plan Ted Gruetzner, a spokesman for the Ministry, would give no details but said an announcement was due this month.

In the meantime, pilot programmes have sprung up throughout the province, with FibreWired Hamilton deploying a hybrid of Wi-Fi and Wi-Max to support the Hamilton-Wentworth region.

Hydro One of Toronto has signed up Rogers Wireless Inc. and Hydro Ottawa has teamed with Primus-owned Mipps Inc.

The new meters will be supported by a two-way communication network, sending packets of hourly kilowatt readings to energy suppliers and then back to consumers, who will be able to get a daily report of the previous 24 hours’ electricity consumption.

The initiative is aimed at conservation by changing usage habits. Smart meters are being adopted nationally by Italy and Sweden, as well as Australia’s state of Victoria and numerous regions in the U.S., the largest being Pennsylvania.

The Ontario Government is pushing for 4.3 million smart meters to be installed in every home and business by 2010. The meters will help educate and inform consumers on their electricity consumption and will aid suppliers in determining hourly peak rates. Ontario’s target for the end of 2007 is 800,000 smart meters.

And for a communication network, says Ian Collins, president of FibreWired Hamilton, each of the network service providers is thinking “wireless”. As well, the common goal is open-standard, non-proprietary wireless that will enable roaming compatibility between providers. It’s hoped the wireless mesh network — supporting 13 million inhabitants over one million square kilometres — will be set up and ready when Wi-Max becomes available in more than chunks and fragments.

Ontario’s six major energy generators — Enersource Corp. of Mississauga; Horizon Utilities Corp. of Hamilton; Hydro One Inc. of Toronto; Hydro Ottawa Ltd.; Vaughan-based PowerStream Inc.; and Veridian Corp. of Ajax — have each contracted network service providers who are working together to set up the infrastructure to link the smart meters.

“We’ve been wanting to offer wireless broadband in the City of Hamilton for some time now, but the smart meters initiative has really proven a big catalyst,” said Collins. “We’re now wirelessly connecting the entire Hamilton-Wentworth region, including the cities of Burlington, Cambridge, Stoney Creek and Brantford.

“Wireless smart meters aren’t new to North America [Kansas City dates back to 1996], but systems in place communicate via RS32 protocol using propriety equipment. What we’re doing here in Hamilton is mobile Internet protocol, with multiple technologies that make it open access (for example Cisco’s mobile IP access router).

“In the urban areas we’re extending our existing fibre optic network to Wi-Fi, but we’ve also set up Wi-Max points similar to wireless mobility towers to reach the 10 per cent of outlying rural regions,” said Collins.

Hamilton-Wentworth’s wireless IP network will offer free access to any e-government and e-learning initiatives, with competitive price packages for private and business users. As well, the network would welcome entrepreneurial ideas such as sponsored hotspots or event-specific plans, Collins said.

While the smart meters do not require broadband communication to transmit data, Ontario’s hydro providers are recognising the value of open-access equipment. The smart meters will read electricity consumption, but being non-proprietary, will allow for gas and water readings too. Similarly, network providers are recognising a greater return on investment by going for broadband IP.

Wi-Max may well be ready for mass deployment in as little as a couple of years’ time, but the question remains whether service providers are ready for Wi-Max and the implications of the technology’s convergence with 3G cellular.

Samsung is touting the release of its wireless broadband Wi-Bro 4G chip set next April and Intel is hoping to ship its Wi-Max chip sets for laptops and hand-held devices later next year. “But here we have service providers who are basically scratching their heads and asking themselves, what does all this convergence mean for our investment in 3G, GSM and other wireless technologies?” said Surtees.

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