Turkish Mobitex operator Mobicom and its sister company Sayot are opening up a new market for automatic meter reading with almost unlimited potential. Using an unique solution developed by ATL, the Turkish company is making rapid progress in developing a major application area.
Turkey pioneers innovative AMR application
Why spend hundreds of millions per year on a task that should only cost pennies per day? This is the central proposition underlying automatic meter reading (AMR), the application that all analysts agree will be the driving force behind the strong growth predicted for wireless telemetry applications.
To get a perspective on these wildly optimistic predictions for growth, let's take a closer look at the numbers. AccuRead, a company 50-percent owned by British Gas that performs some 80 million readings per year for more than a half dozen British utilities, has published figures showing that the average two readings per year performed by a utility company cost GBP 5. Multiplied by the hundreds of thousands or millions of customers that an electricity, gas or water distribution company serves, these costs easily run into the hundreds of millions.
On the other hand, ATL Metering, a subsidiary of Advanced Technology (UK) PLC that has specifically targeted this market, claims to be able to provide these services for just pennies a day. Instead of being limited by semi-annual readings, utility companies are being offered daily or on-demand readings and such features as accurate billing, energy consumption profiling and variable tariffs at a price that is just a fraction of current costs. With a customer value proposition this good, there must be plenty of takers.
Rapid progress in Turkey
Sayot of Turkey is one of the takers. This company, which was formed to exploit opportunities in the telemetry market, is a subsidiary of Cukurova, which is also the parent company of Mobicom, the Turkish Mobitex operator. Like many countries around the world, Turkey is deregulating the energy sector and opening the market to new entrants who will compete with publicly owned utilities. When ATL showed a prototype system to Sayot in December 1997, the company realized that there was a vast potential market to be exploited and that the Mobitex network operated by its sister company Mobicom already provided the necessary infrastructure.
The Sayot project progressed relatively rapidly. By March 1998, the Turkish company began a pilot project with meters located both above and below ground. Three months later, a decision was taken to begin manufacturing the ATL equipment locally on license. Sayot also began the task of recruiting distributors for the new system and obtaining type approval for the equipment. Privatization of utility companies, however, was delayed.
"With national elections coming up in April, the government lost some initiative in pushing forward with privatization," explains Kevin Holland, marketing director at ATL Metering and responsible for the Sayot account. "This of course was a set-back and forced us to re-adjust our forecasts. We are very optimistic, however, and expect to equip upwards of approximately quarter of million meters by year-end."
The radio advantage
The ATL solution is unique in that it is able to accommodate virtually all types of electricity, gas and water meters from the leading manufacturers. Both existing and new meters can be fitted with ATL's equipment, which uses a low-powered radio to create a local area network connecting the meters to the ATL RAMCo concentrator.
The radio itself is extremely sensitive, providing a range of up to 400 metres through buildings with a power output of only 10 milliwatts. Each RAMCo concentrator can handle up to 14 separate 25 kHz radio channels simultaneously and collect data from thousands of meters. A typical installation, however, uses an average of four radio channels and collects data from about 1,500 meters over an area with a radius of up to 400 m. Radio transmitters in the meters will wait for the radio channel to become available, but if it is blocked for a longer period of time, they are able to hop automatically to another channel. The system uses error detection and recovery to ensure that no readings are missed and that all readings are accurate.
The link from the ATL RAMCo to the utility's meter reading center can be implemented in a number of ways. Sayot chose Mobitex, but ATL also supports other wireless carrier services as well as PSTN connections.
"Many utilities don't understand radio," observes Kevin Holland. "They think that you have to have wires to ensure that the data is transferred reliably from point A to point B. So part of our selling job is convincing the customer that radio is reliable and economical, both for the local network and wide-area communications."
Sayot was no exception, Kevin Holland reveals. "At first the customer wanted to use the PSTN, but of course telephone lines in Turkey are neither plentiful nor completely reliable. Gradually Sayot realized that its parent company Cukurova also had a stake in Mobicom, the Mobitex infrastructure was much more reliable and less costly than the PSTN. It also helped that we were working with Ericsson, whose expertise in wireless communications is very much respected by the market."
Not just cost savings
Naturally, the cost savings produced by an automatic meter reading system provide strong motivation for the utility specifying the system.
Cost savings, however, are by no means the only benefit of ATL's solution. In an increasingly deregulated market, other benefits are becoming at least as important.
Theft detection and remote switch/ stroke off are often the primary motivators for many countries. ATL is also quick to point out that energy and water are valuable and scarce resources that must be managed efficiently. With an automatic meter reading system and the ability to monitor and control consumption precisely, these objectives can be met, while lowering costs and improving service for customers. This was one of the main attractions to the Turkish electricity regulator.
Perseverance pays off
The ATL RAMCo solution has generated considerable interest in many countries, and several new contracts are currently being negotiated. Agreement to distribute the ATL product have been concluded with two Mobitex operators, United Wireless in Australia and ST Mobile data in Singapore. ATL has also been commissioned by RAM Mobile Data UK and by Mobicom to incorporate ATL technology into supplementary units to extend their system functionality.
The selling cycle for this type of application can be lengthy. Many utilities needs time to change the way they think as well as operate. Yet, for Mobitex operators, companies like ATL, and their business partners, there are substantial rewards at the end of the day. For companies that are persistent and develop the business strategies required by this market, automatic meter reading offers perhaps greater potential than any other Mobitex market.
ATL's remote access monitoring solution
The ATL solution is based on a local area radio network and the ATL RAMCo, a concentrator for remote access metering. Each electricity, gas or water meter is fitted with a radio transceiver that is powered by batteries or directly from the electricity grid. In typical implementations, the radio generates 10 mW output and operates over a range of up to 400 meters with through-building penetration, corresponding to a sensitivity of between 116 and 121 dBm. The ATL RAMCo supports up to fourteen 25 KHz channels with error detection and recovery. A typical installation uses four channels and concentrates readings from an average of 1,000 meters. The ATL RAMCo is the brains in this solution. This unit can be viewed as the server for the local-area radio network. It concentrates the data from the meters and provides the interface to the wide-area network, as well as a rich array of functions and data manipulation options for the management system. On the metering side, the ATL RAMCo supports equipment from all major manufacturers, including ABB, Horstmann, PRI and Schlumberger. Options for wide-area communications include Mobitex, cellular systems, the PSTN and most other technologies. ATL's solution also supports drive-by metering and a number of other data collection options. The strength of ATL's solution lies not only in the products that the company itself manufactures, but also in its business partnerships. Public utilities are often conservative, and the list of well-respected suppliers with which ATL works closely instills confidence. Working with Ericsson and local telecommunications operators further strengthens this perception. The customer is thus assured of a solution backed by a strong alliance of world-class suppliers.