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« 400 Mbps Home Powerline Networking | Main | Sacramento Network Hits Funding Snag »

October 22, 2007

Burbank Pursues Unique Wi-Fi Network: As Many Nodes as Needed

The folks at Burbank Water and Power are planning a Wi-Fi network that won't resemble any city-wide network built to date: Fred Fletcher, the assistant general manager for the utility, says that their primary concerns are conserving power in order to achieve long-term goals of shifting electrical generation to sources that produce fewer greenhouse gases. They believe Wi-Fi is the ideal mechanism to achieve that goal. They're talking publicly about their plan for the first time today at the MuniWireless conference today, a summit aptly titled "Industry at a Crossroads." (Here's their press release.)

The utility, working with smart utility meter firm SmartSynch, isn't looking just into automated meter reading, in which an employee would drive around and use Wi-Fi instead of eyeballs to pull up the current readers. Nor are they looking to replace the driving around part, too, with a city-wide network that could constantly read the meters.

Rather, that's just part of a set of larger plans to allow management of load through participation of their customers, as well as potentially give those customers free Wi-Fi access as an incentive for meeting conservation goals. Customers will save money, too, by shedding load at critical times.

The Wi-Fi network will be planned as a metering and residential service. Fletcher said the utility will install as many Wi-Fi nodes as needed to provide a good signal to the meters, and, by extension, to users within those locations. This means that outdoor coverage could be irregular, but it's not a focus. It also means that it's much more likely that there will be a high availability of indoor service compared to other networks that have to provide a generalized cloud and ensure indoor and outdoor signals.

Henry Jones, the chief technical officer of SmartSync, said that the goal was demand response, defined as "getting the demand on its own, through incentives, or, in some cases, through direct load control that's initiated by the utility to change when that demand takes place." This includes having smart thermostats that would be in people's homes and in businesses and integrate with the meters. A spike in demand could allow the utility to change the air-conditioning temperature based on a customer's own preference: if you could stand your home or office hotter, the utility can take advantage of your flexibility. Customers would not only save the cost of the electricity they didn't use, but could potentially get a rebate based on the money the utility didn't spend during the demand period. (Power bought on the spot market can be crazily expensive compared to power routinely produced or under regular contract.)

Smart thermostats are in some use and have been talked about for years, but linking them into a live network has been the problem. I asked Fletcher why the utility didn't opt for broadband over powerline (BPL), which always seems to be next year's breakout technology. The reason was simple: BPL follows the same path as power, and a power outage would prevent them from using the network to control substation switching. Wi-Fi, which could be powered through back-up batteries, could continue to function and reach otherwise cut-off shunts and telemetry.

The metering Burbank will put in place will let them first assess how power is being used, and then use that to create a plan for how to best even out demand. This could include huge incentives to some customers to replace ancient air conditions, as some utilities do now to promote efficiency, but also offering free Wi-Fi as a carrot.

The remote metering will allow people to log in at any time to check their usage, and will enable pay-as-you-go billing, something that can help lower-income people who are typically faced with post-facto bills, and who then get behind and have their power disconnected, which adds additional charges. At minimum, a low-speed Wi-Fi network connection will let customers without other Internet access connect to pay their bill or view usage, too. (The meters will allow remote disconnects, too, rather than requiring a technician to visit the home, reducing cost.)

The utility gets to leverage its existing field workers, mapping data (which includes trees in the rights of way and building outlines), fiber-optic network, and utility pole and other rights of way ownership. Their meter readers will fan out with GPS devices, and gather the location of every meter in the city over a few month period, and that data will be directly integrated into their existing GIS system.

They also have the advantage of having giant movie and television studios in their town that use a lot of juice: The top few companies use 25 percent of the electricity; the top 200, 50 percent of the town's juice.

The rollout is planned in four phases, which increase in cost. Phase 1 was a $50,000 technology assessment that's finished. Phase 2 involves spending $50,000 on a pilot test on the utility's 20-acre campus. They then move to phase 3, in which they'll spend $1m, and capture a good portion of the power usage. Because big customers are involved, the utility estimates 80 to 100 Wi-Fi nodes will cover just 80 to 100 meters. Finally, stage 4 will cost about $5m and cover most of the 18 sq mi town.

Burbank, as I noted above, has a fiber-optic network already spread throughout the town. They use OC3 SONET now, an older 155.5 Mbps standard, and will retain that while overlaying 10 gigabit per second Ethernet with equipment from Cisco. This will allow them to feed all their Wi-Fi nodes or mesh clusters rather easily, but also gives them an additional line of revenue for their Internet service operations: studios will likely buy access for transport. Burbank will also invest in a high-definition transport intertie with firms that specialize in moving television data around over long distances.

This idea in Burbank is rather powerful because it's not just another municipal Wi-Fi network. Rather, there are specific applications already justified for long-term cost savings that will be put in place. Wi-Fi access will be an extra, and while a component, not the critical one. Not every utility could make this work: Having fiber in place and a well-understood future goal and squeeze on power generation make a perfect storm in which Wi-Fi fits in this Southern California town.