Smart Grid Communications in the UK

Analyst Blog

Sept. 20, 2011, 11:18 a.m.
Joshua Flood, Senior Analyst

The UK government has committed to a cellular-based solution for its smart grid. It announced a tender for 4.59 billion (US $7.5 billion) worth of contracts to build a new wide area network (WAN) for its smart grid. This new commitment will help the UK meet European Union mandates to support national smart metering by 2020.

It is a bold step by the UK to use a wireless network rather than prime power line communication (PLC) standard which are used in most other European countries for smart grid. The UK government is expected to use general packet radio service (GPRS) or global systems for mobile communications (GSM) technologies rather than 3G or LTE, because smart meters do not require huge bandwidth, and 2G is a cost effective and well known technology.

One of the conditions for telecom companies participating in the tender is they will need 100% coverage of the UK. The tender is split up into 3 regions/contracts; Northern Great Britain which includes Scotland, central Great Britain which includes Wales, and Southern England. Each of the three contracts will be split up into services; telephone and data transmission services, IT services, consulting, software development, internet, and support.

There are two very interesting aspects to the UK government’s new communication initiatives for smart grid:

The government has set up a central data and communications company (DCC) to control the access to the data from the deployed smart meters. This takes away the security responsibilities from energy utilities and will help instill greater consumer confidence in data privacy. The US and other European countries have been debating possible solutions to smart grid security and will take particular interest in the UK’s smart grid model.

The choice to use GPRS or GSM, which are 2G technologies. 2G may be very well known and cost effective but how long will GSM and GPRS networks continue to run. Mobile operators are already planning for 4G in 2G allocated frequency spectrum which will seriously reduce frequency capacity. Additionally, the functionality of 2G isn’t great and the DCC may struggle to interact with consumers and provide real time and accurate information.

Nevertheless, the UK government’s investment in smart grid communications is good news for the energy community and no doubt be a positive for telecom companies that are eager to get into the smart grid market.