The Newton-Evans Research Company has released initial findings from its extensive research program looking into electric power utility use of various telecommunications technologies and plans for adding capabilities to meet the requirements of the emerging smart grid. The ongoing research program is entitled: Global Study of Data Communications Usage Patterns and Plans in the Electric Power Industry: 2011-2015.

With more than 100 of the world’s leading utilities expected to join the study by mid-October, here is a summary of a few key observations at the mid-point in the study:

AMI Projects: While power line carrier technology led in mentions of data communications technologies being used for at least some portion of meter communications, nearly one-third reported having no plans for AMI deployments at this time and 20% were undecided about their eventual choice of AMI communications methods.

Plans for connecting smart and advanced meters to the utility’s telecommunications network varied, with 36% saying they had no such plans. Just over one quarter cited use of public cellular services, 24% reported some use of RF mesh networks, and 13% reported use or plans to use point-to-multipoint radio. Many utilities are now taking a "wait and see’ attitude toward AMI with regulatory decisions not yet rendered in several states and international regions. There is still a good amount of discussion over AMI benefits, costs, communications approaches, data ownership, as well as meter data management and consumer privacy issues.

Interoperability and Open Protocols: One question group in the Newton-Evans’ survey measures the level of agreement or disagreement with 11 statements related to communications issues that were contributed by suppliers and utilities: (interoperability, SLAs, Industry Pace of Change, open protocols, synchrophasor use, and others). Among these topics, two have received strong indications of "agreement" among survey participants thus far along in the study. These are: interoperability being important to the utility, and the use of open protocols providing a "degree of protection from premature product obsolescence.

IP and Smart Grid Communications: The majority of respondents to date concur on the notion of using IP for all smart grid communications. However, 20% of the initial group indicated that they do not support standardizing on the use of IP for any SG communications.

Communications for Distribution Automation: Distribution Automation (DA) is a key component of smart grid. For DA, 40% of utilities surveyed to date use licensed point-to-multipoint communications, and thirty-eight percent use unlicensed point-to-multipoint. Numerous other technologies and approaches to DA communications were also mentioned including cellular, POTS, frame relay, paging, GPRS, fiber, leased lines, and private fiber-based Ethernet.

Responding utilities are also providing input on related DA questions: "Which communication technologies do you use for DA backhaul?" and also asked "Which DA communications network technology do you think will be dominant at your utility 3 years from now?" including reasons why a specific DA Backhaul technology is dominant at this time.

Smart Grid Communications: The study includes feedback sections on communications plans for five key smart grid component areas. Findings will be further detailed by world region and by utility ownership type and size. The three volume study is priced at $4,250.00, and can be ordered online and downloaded from the Newton-Evans web site from November 1, 2011 onward. Pre-publication report orders will be granted a $500.00 discount.

Spending on Utility Telecommunications: Earlier studies conducted by Newton-Evans Research estimated the total value of telecommunications expenditures in the global electric power industry at about $13 billion per year. About $5.4 billion of this total was allocated for data communications.

Public versus Private Networks: The debate on private versus public ownership of utility telecommunications networks is not going to end soon, based on findings reported here. It seems entirely likely that a majority of electric utility networks in North America and several international regions will remain essentially private, supplemented by the prudent use of commercial network services for less critical activities.