Smarter communications for a smarter world

M2M communications provides visibility, a key characteristic guiding the strategic and operational plans of utilities and energy companies today
Published: Fri 19 Aug 2016

In a report prepared by Beecham Research, of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) is said to play a “small, but essential part of the digitisation of the energy business”1. In this context, M2M technology plays an important role in the transfer of data from meters and other intelligent grid devices to the utility, as well as the delivery of consumption and cost information back to the consumer.

Aside from its applications in smart grid and smart metering, the development of smart cities globally has elevated the status and created huge demand for M2M solutions. In smart cities, sensors are integrated with real-time monitoring systems, through which data is collected from citizens and devices and subsequently processed and analysed. The information and knowledge gathered are used to tackle inefficiency in urban services as well as reduce costs and resource consumption. Gartner has estimated that 1.6 billion ‘things’ will be connected up to larger smart city infrastructure by the end of this year.

Adding to this, the increasing number of mobile network operators (MNOs) offering traditional energy services requires utilities to examine current service-based offerings to ensure that they deliver the types of services that their customers need and want. The digitisation of energy, our homes and cities provides the gateway for MNOs to leverage their expertise in connectivity to expand their offering to include smart energy solutions and services.

An example of this is Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company, which has announced plans to deploy home solar-plus-storage solutions to consumers in Australia. The company said it would offer entire home connectivity packages including internet, phones, and now solar. Vodafone has also secured a deal with Scottish Power Energy Networks to improve monitoring and fault identification systems to boost the reliability and efficiency of the utility’s transmission and distribution networks.

These are just two examples in a swathe of partnerships between telecommunications companies and utilities, and municipalities.

According to Cisco, in South Africa more people will have mobile phones (5.4 billion) than electricity (5.3 billion), running water (3.5 billion) and cars (2.8 billion) by 2020. 63% of mobile connections will be ‘smart’ connections by 2020, up from 22% in 2015.

“The ubiquity of mobile services presents a growing opportunity for energy service providers,” says the GSM Association. This opportunity is demonstrated by the fact that more than 358 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa are covered by mobile networks but do not have access to electricity.4

M2M connectivity

Another trend in M2M is the emergence of Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) networks as a serious contender amongst the myriad of connectivity solutions on offer. New LPWA standards, such as LTE-M (Long Term Evolution for machine-type communications) and NB-IoT (NarrowBand IoT), approved by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), are expected to drive market adoption.

A BuddeComm report detailing key global trends in 2016 relating to M2M, IoT and Big Data notes that LPWA networks are optimised to provide wide area coverage with minimal power consumption – which are typically reliant on unlicensed frequencies. LPWA devices also have low data rates, long battery lives and can operate unattended for extended periods of time.

LPWA networks are already prevalent in IoT applications such as smart metering, lighting control and parking management, and are expected to make a significant contribution to the M2M and IoT ecosystem. In a recent report on the LPWA market, the telecommunications intelligence and consulting firm SNS Research estimates that the LPWA market could reach US$27 billion in service revenue by 2020.2

In an attempt to make M2M/IoT devices interoperate with each other, as a result of the multitude of networking and communication protocols in the market, the activities of standards bodies such as the AllSeen Alliance, Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC) and the oneM2M initiative are directed towards establishing standardised market solutions.

Ultimately, the aim of standardisation is to harmonise market models, reduce uncertainty and lock-in effects, promote market growth and anticipate future needs of the wider grid.

The benefits of ubiquitous connectivity are widely documented, and so are the associated privacy and security concerns.

Proactive approach to cyber physical security

An example of a proactive approach to security is that of Snohomish Public Utility District (SnoPUD) which called on the Washington National Guard to test its security defences in a two week ‘penetration test’.

Benjamin Beberness, chief information officer at SnoPUD, reveals how the National Guard successfully breached its utility systems, exposing how vulnerable utility networks and systems are to attack.

In a report, Beecham Research predicted the revenue opportunity for M2M solution security reaching US$700 million by 2018. The firm has also identified end-to-end solution security as the leading concern for solution providers and for adopters of new M2M solutions.3

Upon the release of its ‘IoT threat map’ last year, Professor Jon Howes, technology director at Beecham Research, said: “Traditional M2M (Machine to Machine) applications are typically very focused, using specific edge devices, a single network and custom platform, making it relatively easy for security professionals to secure to the acceptable level.

“But the IoT cuts across different sectors and embraces multiple devices and networks – from satellite to cellular – along with a growing number of IoT platforms and Big Data systems, which present threats on many different levels and fronts. Wherever there is a new interface between devices, networks, platforms and users, there is the potential for a new weak link.”

References

1 M2M Now Black Book 2015, pg. 54-62

2 BuddeComm Intelligence Report - M2M, IoT and Big Data - Key Global Trends 2016

3 Issues and Business Opportunities in Security for M2M Solutions, Beecham Research

4 GSMA Mobile for Smart Solutions: How Mobile can Improve Energy Access in Sub-Saharan Africa

This article first appeared in Metering & Smart Energy International, Issue 2, 2016.

 

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