The landscape of the utility industry is changing. After 95 years of “more of the same” infrastructure, information communications technology (ICT) is becoming part of the next generation of utility generation, delivery and consumption. The ICT industry, once solely aligned with providing voice solutions for the public telecommunications and enterprise communications industries, has been expanding services into a myriad of once untouched industry verticals.

Today, carriers and service providers are increasingly expanding their service offerings to include solutions for the utility industry. What is driving this trend? The ICT industry's ability to deliver two-way data transmission solutions, such as smart grid technology and machine-to-machine (M2M) technology to businesses.

In the case of the utility industry, M2M technology is the basis for smart grid and home energy management solutions. As smart meters get even smarter, and the security of the information becomes more critical to the successful adoption of the technology, bandwidth requirements are projected to exceed the capabilities of legacy systems.

To realize the greatest benefits from the deployment of these smart grid technologies, the cost-effectiveness of the devices, communications and applications all must be developed and enhanced. Industry-developed standards are necessary to allow for the reduction in costs, to increase efficiency and to expand the number of markets.

The Role of Standards

As the possibilities of M2M technology continue to redefine the ICT industry, the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) has been at the front end of delivering standards that address M2M interoperability in several industry verticals. Accredited by the American National Standards Institute, TIA operates 12 standards engineering committees, which develop industry standards for a variety of ICT applications, including the utility industry.

TIA's TR-51 engineering committee, Smart Utility Networks, is currently in the process of developing air-interface, network and conformance standards in support of smart grid networking. The intent of the standards produced by TR-51 is to provide electric utility providers with a standardized and industry-proven blueprint to providing intelligent two-way data transmission between smart meters, smart home appliances and a utility's back-office system.

While the build-out costs associated with a smart grid deployment are high, TR-51's work also is addressing ways to reduce the costs associated with smart grid deployment. Smart Utility Network devices allow for the operation of large-scale, low-power wireless applications, but they often require the maximum use of power available under applicable regulations, particularly when used to provide long-range, point-to-point connections.

TR-51's formulation of a multipart wireless mesh network topology standard, optimized for smart grid network applications, provides utilities with an alternative method of connecting the smart grid over a geographically widespread area with a large number of devices operating. The standard, which employs the use of a mesh, or peer-to-peer, multihop technique may be employed by utilities so that devices may effectively communicate with an access point over a geographically widespread area. By allowing devices to relay data via this technique, utilities are able to reduce the number of access points across their smart grid and save on build-out costs.

The Disconnected Utility

The development of voluntary industry standards functions most efficiently with a balanced representation of users and producers of smart grid technologies. While the device manufacturers and application developers are represented, the absence of end users (utility companies), particularly those from North America, is problematic.

For the utility companies to enable the strength and full potential of the competitive market forces, and thus realize the inherent cost reductions and product innovations, their participation and contributions to the standards development process is necessary.

TIA has an active outlet for the development of standards related to the deployment and use of smart grid technologies. The utility companies have the most to gain from the development of industry standards, yet remain absent from the conversation. TIA and the experts in the TR-51 engineering committee welcome participation from representatives of the utility companies in these efforts.


Herb Congdon (hcongdon@tiaonline.org) has served as chair of the TIA TR-42 Telecommunications Cabling Infrastructure engineering committee and several TR-42 subcommittees. He is a registered professional engineer in North Carolina.

Editor's note: For more information on the Telecommunications Industry Association or the TR-51 engineering committee, contact Jeff Hannah at jhannah@tiaonline.org.