A WiMax trial Energy Australia has been running with Alcatel-Lucent in the Newcastle region has come up trumps, with early results being much better than expected.
The $3 million, six-site trial was intended to test the technology over an area of 100,000 customers and to see if signal strengths were adequate for communicating machine-to-machine with network components and smart meters.
The organisation planned to have carried out 20,000 signal strength tests by
June this year, but the project is ahead of schedule, with 13,000
tests already done since the network was commissioned in October. The success rate
has until now been over 99 per cent. "Definitely much better than
expected," Energy Australia manager intelligent networks Adrian
Clark told ZDNet.com.au. recently.
With a network of sensors and meters connected via WiMax, Energy
Australia would be able to respond to outages more quickly, run its
network in a more efficient and automated fashion, give customers
real-time information about their electricity use and enable field
computing for staff.
"We identified WiMax as a fourth generation technology —
one which we could actually pilot today," Clark said. Other options
the company considered were 2G, proprietary wireless technology,
3G or even narrowband over power line.
"A lot of our work has been looking at those, but we see some
of them will be obsolete in a few years," Clark said. The units
making up the energy network have a 15-year minimum lifespan.
Replacing equipment every two to three years wasn't an option, he
said, meaning a longer-term technology was needed.
WiMax offered not only that, but a variety of vendors, which
meant that Energy Australia would not find itself married to any
one company down the line, he said.
Using 3G would support the requirements, he said, but Energy
Australia would need millions of devices with low bandwidth
requirements on one base station. The 3G networks built today
hadn't been designed with that in mind, Clark said, adding that
there weren't any devices ready at this point. WiMax on the other
hand had a number of different vendor roadmaps for devices.
Despite this reasoning, Energy Australia wasn't "100 per cent
wedded to WiMax" Clark said, adding that the company saw WiMax
and LTE as "at least being technically similar". The utility could fall back
on 3G networks and wait until smart meters were better defined, he said.
Yet a strategic decision on the preferred communications platform needed to
be made and would be tackled after the trial was over, he said.
When the roadmap was clear, Energy Australia would then be able to
proactively roll out compliant equipment as it was needed. The
utility had already earmarked over $8 billion for the replacement of network
components over the next five years, making now a good time to make
the strategic decision, Clark said.
Another hurdle the utility needs to overcome before any roll-out
can go ahead is to get its hands on some spectrum. The spectrum it had been using for the pilot
had only been granted on trial basis. The options, Clark said, were
to buy some from a carrier or to approach ACMA to have some
released for the purpose. Energy Australia had been in preliminary
discussions with carriers, he said. The utility would need around
15MHz of spectrum.