Cambridge Consultants

doesn't want smart meters to get locked into a single, and perhaps standards-losing, communications technology.

That's why the U.K.-based technology consultancy known for helping bring Bluetooth to the masses has developed what it calls a universal metering interface, or UMI – a standard way to switch communications systems in and out of any smart meter.

German meter manufacturing giant Elster has already said it will use UMI for its smart natural gas meters. Of the two other big smart meter vendors in Europe, Landis+Gyr and Itron, at least one is close to adopting UMI as well, Alistair Morfey, Cambridge Consultants technology director, said on Tuesday.

The pitch is simple, he said. While the requirements for how meters measure power and gas are set, how they're to communicate – and how secure those communications must be – "are not that stable, and are changing all the time," he said.

Choosing a communications technology to use is a pressing problem for smart meter makers, as well as companies designing in-home energy management devices, smart appliances, and other systems meant to communicate with them.

In Europe, for example, the U.K. looks to be adopting ZigBee, while countries such as Germany and Holland have picked alternative wireless technology M-Bus, he noted.

But with the United Kingdom demanding that all its 26 million electricity meters and 22 million gas meters be "smart" by 2020, and similar mandates for making European Union electricity meters capable of two-way communication by 2022, meter makers might not want to wait for communication and security standards to be developed, he said.

"The meter manufacturers want to have one meter they can sell across these countries," Morfey said. UMI offers a way to install the meters now, and adapt communications as the standards change, he said.

Cambridge Consultants – a subsidiary of European consultancy Altran – won't manufacture the modules themselves, but sees the adoption of UMI as a way to expand its presence in the smart metering industry, as well as an opportunity to have its software licensed by manufacturers who adopt it, Morfey said.

That promise is similar to that being promoted by the U-SNAP Alliance in the United States, a group that wants to build in-home energy monitoring devices with communications that can be switched in and out (see U-SNAP Gets Google, GE, Utilities to Support Modular Smart Grid Comms).

But while U-SNAP is concentrating on in-home devices, UMI's modules are designed to be installed in the smart meters themselves, Morfey said.

They're also meant to provide options for both directions that smart meters are to communicate, he noted. That includes the low-power wireless standards such as ZigBee, Z-Wave, M-Bus, and potentially Bluetooth meant to communicate to devices in home area networks, as well as the wide-area networks to link smart meters back to utilities.

In Europe, that's typically done through various public wireless technologies such as GSM, which UMI can support, though the modules also could be upgraded to operate over 4G networks as those are deployed.

In North America, on the other hand, utilities have tended to use mostly proprietary wireless mesh radios to link smart meters in neighborhood area networks, then link those to concentrator boxes, or hubs, that then use cellular or fiber communications to connect back to utility control centers.

Companies including SmartSynch and Ambient are making networking devices that can be upgraded in a modular fashion to use different communications technologies as they emerge (see A PC for the Smart Grid and Ambient Expands Smart Grid Contract With Duke).

As for linking smart meters and in-home devices, most North American utilities appear to be choosing ZigBee (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Smart Meter Wish Lists).

But while Cambridge Consultants has concentrated its UMI efforts on the European market to date, that doesn't mean it doesn't see the technology having promise in the United States as well, Morfey said.