What to consider when choosing a Communication Technology – The Five C’s

Written by: Rangel Floranda

A proven way to assess network requirements and evaluate available communications technologies is to consider the 5C’s: coverage, capacity, capability, commitment, and cost.

The three most adopted and deployed AMI and SCADA/DA Communication Technologies are Power Line Carrier or PLC, Private Wireless RF, either Mesh or Star Network and Cellular (includes GPRS, 3G, 4G, NB-IoT, LTE-M & soon 5G). Then there are few deployments utilizing Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) and Optical Fiber coupled with other applications for Large Power Commercial & Industrial consumers. But where do you start when evaluating which one is right for you?

Coverage. Connectivity, Line-of-Sight, Non-Line-of-Sight, Frequency Regulation (Transmit Power/EIRP Limitations). Coverage varies by geographical area and the key determining factor is to identify the right technology or mix that can meet connectivity; be it sparse, selective, mass, or full coverage.


Capacity. Number of Connections, Bandwidth & Latency, Frequency Regulation (Spectrum Band, Duty Cycle Limits). Allowable spectrum is key to capacity to determine how wide is your spectrum availability for operations, how many non-overlapping channels you have and whether it can only support pilot and small roll-out, or large and nationwide deployment. Duty Cycle is the percentage at which you are allowed to operate or ON. A 10% duty cycle per day or per hour, means 90% of the time, you should be OFF or non-operational. It may work for non-intrusive monitoring (once-a-day collection application) but what if you need hourly or even need to do random remote on-demand tasks, 15/30-minutes interval reads?

Duty Cycle regulations helps to reduce interference, but it put constraint and limits the number of connections. This are mainly on narrowband where you have limited spectrum.
Two key requirements that characterize the needs of an individual application are its demand for bandwidth and its tolerance of latency.

Some applications do not require very much bandwidth but must be delivered consistently in real‐time. Some will require a considerable amount of bandwidth but may be quite tolerant of latency or delays in transmission. Achieving the benefits delivered by the above applications requires a scalable, high‐performance network that can accommodate the different needs of the many different applications.

Capability. Security, QoS, Open-Standard, Interoperability, Integration, Device Agnostic

Achieving the benefits delivered by smart grid applications requires a reliable and high‐performance network. These requires communication network to be:

        • Scalable – bandwidth capacity for growth & future expansion, be it application or number of connections/endpoints
        • Secure – ensures that there are no weak points
        • QoS – ensures reliable data delivery and set priorities to different applications
        • Interoperability – interface and protocol interoperability drives development of broader solutions
        • Open-Platform – creates a “fertile” foundation for integration and end-device innovations
        • Ease of Management – a unified management system to manage multi-application suite with integrated business intelligence and analytics capabilities

Commitment. Scalability, Strong Development Roadmap, Backward Compatibility and Futureproofing

Communications technology has advanced to the point where every Smart Grid application and some others that might emerge in the future can be supported on a multi-technology, multi-tiered communications platform, resulting in efficiencies and economies of scale that will ultimately provide significant cost savings.

Utilities which deploy a hybrid integrated multi-technology, multi-tier and high-capacity communications network will be positioned to deliver connectivity and capacity driven outcomes in a wide range of domains, including Smart City and IoT applications such as smart street lighting, smart parking, transit services, security, and more.

Utilities should secure firm commitment from the communication solution provider, avoid sole dependency on just one technology especially if smart grid is not the communication evolution driver and utilities are not the main customers. This is to avoid costly truck roll replacement or retrofits when such technology like in cellular who are fast movers are being sunset before the lifespan of the meters and/or grid end-devices which at minimum, 10 years.

Cost. Capex & Opex, (Public Network and/or Private (Utility Owned), Licensed versus Unlicensed)

Sharing the Smart Grid Infrastructure for Smart City and IoT applications can provide funding for utility’s Capex and Opex and understanding the full set of networking capabilities that might ultimately be required. A failure to do so with an initial application creates the likelihood of stranding assets and incurring future upgrade costs.

New revenue streams can fundamentally change the utility business model by putting in the right Smart Grid Communications Platform from the beginning to be able to handle not just the applications of today but also of tomorrow. The risks and costs of such an approach would simply be prohibitive and whoever invests in such infrastructure is in a position to capitalize on these new revenue streams.

Achieving the maximum return on the investment in a fully integrated communications infrastructure requires that it support the full spectrum of an electric utility’s applications. Each application will place different demands on the network, and in the aggregate, these demands will require a network that is secure, capable, and scalable enough to satisfy the past, present, and future needs of the grid.

The Realization – Early Movers
Utilities who were early adopters of grid modernization and digitalization, whom conducted multiple proof of concepts and pilots, realize that the best choice is not with just a single communication technology but instead to implement a communications infrastructure end‐to‐end with a hybrid approach or an integrated multi-technology, multi-tier network platform—beginning in the subscribers’ premise and businesses, extending through the meters and distribution network, and ultimately encompassing the utility’s entire service area. Such network provides the utility operator full control over its end-devices and a secure domain environment for every grid application.

While likely to be new to most utilities, the ability of modern data networks to support multiple applications well and securely is both standardized and proven. Supporting multiple applications with an integrated, multi-technology, multi‐tier Smart Grid network provides flexibility to balance technological capabilities with economic needs.
The deployment of AMI had somewhat further help propel investment in Smart Grid as well as value-added services for Smart Streetlighting, Smart Cities, Industrial IoTs and other grid applications such as distributed energy resources (DER) with the adaptation of solar, microgrids, battery storage and Electric Vehicles. EVs can be used as source of behind-the-meter demand flexibility, electricity storage, and perhaps ultimately supply to the grid, generating benefits for both consumers and producers of power.

Not only utilities reap the benefits of modernizing the grid and having an integrated multi-technology, multi-tier communication platform to support multiple applications and bring back all information and have full control of utility end-devices, but also the customers and the society, as a whole. The benefit to the society is improved efficiency in energy delivery and use, favorable environmental impact, accelerating the use of distributed generation encouraging the use of green energy sources. Ultimately, the environment wins, and everybody wins.