We’ve been waiting for over a year to get some details on just how Cisco’s disruptive, end-to-end internet protocol-enabled smart meter architecture might roll out to real-world markets. Well, we’ve got those details, and they add up to a very competitive offering from Cisco and meter partner Itron -- if the smart meter market isn’t all sealed up, that is.

Cisco’s new, potentially game-changing model is being deployed with the Canadian utility BC Hydro in a $949 million smart meter deployment, one we covered when it was announced in April. But the details of just how Cisco is working with Itron -- and just how Cisco has been using the IP-ready, low-power networking technology of acquisition Arch Rock in the project -- haven’t been much publicized.

Those were some of the subjects I covered in an interview last week with Paul De Martini, chief technology officer of Cisco’s smart grid team. De Martini fleshed out some of the existing information about the BC Hydro deployment, which is set to replace 1.8 million old-school meters by the end of 2012, and what struck me was how completely Cisco seems to have taken over the core functions of a smart meter network from its partner.

“We’ll have the meshing technology, the field area router, a network management system and security that will be part of that,” he said. “It will still be the Itron collection engine to get the data sets out of the meters. But in terms of device management, network configuration, network management -- that will be Cisco.”

In other words, while Itron is still making the meters, BC Hydro will be deploying what is, in essence, a Cisco-controlled network. That gives BC Hydro’s smart metering network a variety of IP-enabled technologies that differentiate it from its competitors:

1)   A wireless mesh network based on standards-based technologies that support IP from end to end;

2)   A new field-area router device to connect all those mesh-networked smart meters, one that can also be outfitted with a variety of IP-enabled communications;

3)   Taken together, a platform that can connect everything from grid sensors and controls and distributed solar and wind power management to streaming video applications and workforce support software -- in other words, the whole family of smart grid support functions that Cisco describes as part of its vision of an end-to-end smart grid system.

All in all, it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to a smart meter deployment that seems capable of actually delivering the whole range of functions that many other deployments can only promise. The only question is: is the smart grid market still in a position to make the move to Cisco’s vision -- or have they already committed to alternatives?

The IP Wireless Mesh Network

The first piece of Cisco’s smart meter architecture that differentiates it from the competition is the technology it acquired from its purchase of San Francisco-based Arch Rock last year. That technology, which is going into all of the Itron meters being deployed by BC Hydro, is based on the IPv6-ready, low-power wireless mesh technology called 6LowPAN -- a technology that’s also at the core of Google’s plans for networking LEDs and other home devices, as well as a core piece of the “internet of things” being envisioned by a host of industry players preparing from the move from IPv4 to IPv6.

What’s so special about this? Well, Arch Rock’s (now Cisco’s) technology runs over standards-based radios like IEEE’s 802.15.4 systems, giving them IP interoperability all the way from the application to the physical communications layer. That differentiates it from virtually all of today’s smart meter deployments using wireless mesh technologies, since big contenders like IPO candidate Silver Spring Networks, as well as the Big Five smart meter makers, use proprietary 900-megahertz radio technologies.

Indeed, one Cisco graphic I looked at explicitly compares the end-to-end IP interoperability characteristics of its architecture to what it calls a “false sense of interoperability” that is promoted by competitors that claim native IP capabilities. While Cisco doesn’t name any competitors in the slide, Silver Spring, with its mantra of being the only IP-based smart meter networking player out there, could easily fit into that category.

At the same time, Arch Rock’s (now Cisco’s) technology has been developed in coordination with IEEE’s 802.15 Smart Utility Networks (SUN) Task Group 4G, which is focused on developing versions of 802.15.4g standards built specifically to manage lots and lots of energy-specific endpoints -- in other words, adapting the “internet of things” concept for the smart grid environment. That could give Cisco a leg up on preparing the smart meter networks it’s deploying with Itron for connectivity to a future field of IPv6-enabled smart grid devices still on the drawing boards of companies around the world.

The New Field-Area Router

But low-power, low-bandwidth mesh networks can only support so many smart grid functions. There are going to be different types of communications in the field, such as broadband for streaming video and workforce data, or grid protection and control systems, that can’t be done over a narrowband mesh network.  

That’s where Cisco’s new field-area router device comes in. The router, being deployed for the first time with BC Hydro, isn’t the same as the Connected Grid routers and switches that Cisco has already publicly announced in projects with customers such as Australia’s Ausnet and Duke Energy in the United States. Nor is it commercially available, though I’d expect the BC Hydro project will be where Cisco determines whether or not it’s ready for prime time.

Key to the new field-area router is its ability to incorporate a whole host of IP-based communications via modular upgrades, De Martini noted.

“We’ve designed this router to incorporate multiple communications through this modular capability,” he said. “But all of those being IP-based ... allows you to have an overlaying network management system that overlays all four of those. Plus, you can have a unified security schema” -- an important factor, given how smart grid security is coming under increasing scrutiny from utilities and their regulators.  

This modular, upgradable, multi-communications concept sounds a lot like the GridRouter device built by SmartSynch, or the communications modules built by Ambient, though De Martini wouldn’t draw any specific comparisons between the two and what Cisco is offering.

Still, the similarity is noteworthy because both SmartSynch and Ambient have been testing their modular grid communications nodes with big U.S. utility Duke Energy -- and Duke is also one of Cisco’s first big utility customers.

Duke has also taken a much slower approach to rolling out smart meters than many of its contemporary investor-owned utilities. So far, it has chosen Echelon to supply meters for pilot rollouts in Ohio, which Echelon hopes will grow to larger-scale deployments. Duke has been relatively close-mouthed about how it plans to expand smart metering to its millions of customers in multiple states -- but it has been quite forceful in saying that it would prefer to choose technologies that can deliver more than straight meter-reading capabilities.

The Smart Grid Platform, Writ Large

The end goal of all this interoperability, of course, is for Cisco to claim that its smart meter network isn’t a one-off meter-reading system, but rather the basis for a whole raft of smart grid services and capabilities to come -- in other words, a platform.

Cisco showed off a whole range of services it hopes to provide smart grid customers last month during its Global Energy Summit, with CEO John Chambers demonstrating various tools that allow field workers to communicate with central office engineers, download equipment specifications and take pictures of installations to upload to central databases. Customers including Duke Energy and Ausgrid are using similar tools today to support maintenance programs, remote workforce management, and remote engineering access for engineers in control centers, Cisco says.

Of course, installing communications networks solely to let field workers video-chat with headquarters wouldn’t be cost-effective. But Cisco is banking on the idea that its IP-capable smart grid networks, including its new Itron smart meter networks, will eventually serve these kinds of uses -- and that the availability of such services will make the smart meter offering more attractive to utilities.

“Platform” is possibly the most overused word in the smart grid lexicon circa 2011, and Cisco isn’t alone in using it. Echelon has launched a smart grid platform open to third-party developers, and Silver Spring is pledging to deliver a host of home energy management, demand response and plug-in vehicle management products over its network, to name a few.

Certainly Cisco’s recent decision to pull back from building energy management and home energy control devices hasn’t given the industry confidence that the networking giant is ready to deliver on all its myriad smart grid promises. But De Martini said that those recent decisions are in line with the economic realities in the energy industry, which needs to prioritize spending on projects that offer returns today, rather than in the future. A smart meter platform that can pay off in automated meter reading and outage detection today, then add on other services when the time is right, seems to fit that bill.

Is Cisco Too Late for the Smart Meter Market?

The big question facing Cisco and Itron is: are they too late to reap the spoils of their end-to-end IP smart meter plans? Cisco has said it wants a minimum 40-percent market share in the smart grid networking field. Whether it can see its way clear to achieving that in the smart meter space remains unclear.

After all, in North America at least, much of the 140-million smart meter market has already been spoken for. GTM Research predicts that the U.S. smart meter market will peak out in 2012 and decline thereafter, while distribution automation and other grid investments will take an increasing share of total smart grid spending, set to grow from $2.2 billion in 2010 to $5.6 billion in 2015.

Cisco doesn’t necessarily share that view, in part because it has set its sights on a global smart meter market. While U.S. smart meter deployments, boosted by stimulus funding, may be harder to break into, Cisco sees the European market reaching its peak in 2014 to 2015, and Russia, Brazil, China, and other Asian countries becoming the major markets by the second half of the decade.

Beyond that lies the question of whether or not the smart meters already in place or under deployment might be targets for upgrades, or even replacement, over the coming years. That’s a potential scenario if today’s smart meter networks can’t deliver on their functionality, interoperability or security promises, though it’s doubtless an unwelcome one for utilities that would face a grueling process of asking regulators for yet more upgrade money on top of their initial deployment costs.

De Martini did not raise these possibilities himself, though he did point out that Cisco’s “IP everywhere” mantra was based on the notion that smart grid systems ought to be built in anticipation of integrating technologies that aren’t yet available -- but that those technologies would likely be based on integrating with other IP-based systems. Sounds like a reasonable proposition to me.