by Jeff St. John
October 26, 2017

This year’s Itron Utility Week was its usual whir of activity, with the annual gathering of customers and partners of the U.S. smart metering player attending multi-tracked sessions on everything from better legacy drive-by reading to connecting smart cities through its OpenWay Riva technology. 

But the question on everyone’s mind -- Itron’s acquisition of long-time rival Silver Spring Networks -- was not on the agenda for any breakout sessions or fireside discussions. Nor did any Silver Spring executives make appearances on stage. That makes sense, though, because the deal valued at about $830 million has not yet closed, and nobody at either company can talk about it publicly. 

Even so, IUW did offer some windows into how Itron is getting ready to execute on one of its most challenging promises -- to combine the two companies’ disparate technologies into an integrated, internet-of-things-capable platform. 

In his opening speech, CEO Philip Mezey did mention Silver Spring as one of two Itron acquisitions this year (the other is Comverge), highlighting its entry into the market as a Silicon Valley startup using a “much more technology-forward approach.” 

He did not mention that this approach included accusing Itron, along with Landis+Gyr and Elster, of using a proprietary set of technologies, compared to Silver Spring’s IP-based technology. It's a claim that, while arguably accurate, also failed to mention that Silver Spring used the same 900-megahertz radios, for which no technology standard yet existed. 

The issue reached a head in 2008, when a call for “IP-based” technology briefly found its way into the list of requirements for smart meters seeking to receive federal stimulus funding. Since that didn’t make sense given the lack of standards development in the field, it was quickly dropped. 

Still, open standards did become a guiding principal of the Department of Energy guidelines for the billions of dollars that flowed to utilities and their smart meter vendors, and each responded in turn. In the following years, Itron made rapid progress on adopting open standards for its ongoing mesh networking development, both internally and through its partnership with Cisco. 

“They pushed us to embrace more open technology,” Mezey said of Silver Spring’s role in that evolution. While both companies underwent layoffs and restructuring in the market lull that followed the surge of stimulus spending, they also both invested in developing more powerful and flexible technology, capable of putting the processing power of each meter, sensor or other device to use. Itron also concentrated with Cisco on extending its unlicensed spectrum mesh to include both cellular and powerline carrier networks. 

The result, Itron’s OpenWay Riva, is “the strongest open-standards-based network out there,” bringing together an integrated radio frequency, powerline carrier, and cellular communications networks that can adapt to all conditions, Mezey claimed. 

What is an open-standards network? 

Mezey did not expand on his use of the phrase “open standards,” which is just as well, since it would take several hours of in-depth discussion to describe just what the difference is between Itron's technology today and a truly open standards-based technology like Wi-Fi. 

Luckily for us, Itron Utility Week hosted multiple hours of discussions like these, including an important hour with Phil Beecher, chairman of the Wi-SUN Alliance. While both Silver Spring and Itron have been members of this alliance for years now, their merger has coincided with some important milestones in the process of giving the phrase “open-standards-based mesh networks” some meaning.

Wi-SUN is working on an implementation of IEEE 802.15.4g for the physical layer of wireless mesh networks of the type now used by most of North America’s utilities. It was brought together in 2012, with valuable contributions from most of the smart meter companies, including Itron, Landis+Gyr and, later on, Silver Spring, as well as by utilities.

At the same time, “when we first started, there was a certain reluctance for companies to work together in this space,” he said. That makes sense, given that the three biggest AMI providers involved were all competitors. 

“What’s definitely changed recently is, there is a real spirit of collaboration and cooperation,” Beecher noted in response to a question about Itron’s acquisition of Silver Spring. “I think the industry has recognized that you need interoperability.” 

Wi-SUN has more than 100 devices listed on its products page. But almost all of those have been certified not for its field area network (FAN), but for a home area network (HAN) technology called ECHONET that Tokyo Electric Power Co. is using for its 27-million-unit smart meter rollout. Other Japanese utilities are now picking up that narrowband technology, an implementation of 6LoWPAN by Toshiba and its subsidiary at the time, Landis+Gyr, but it doesn’t fit well with available open spectrum in other parts of the world, he noted. 

The FAN, by contrast, has only nine certified physical layer products to date, including the latest Cisco, Landis+Gyr, Itron and Silver Spring devices, as well as chips from Analog Devices, Renesas and others. But it serves in spectrums that are widely available around the world. 

It’s taken a long time to reach this relatively small number, he noted. Wi-SUN released its FAN technical profile specification in January 2015, and Itron certified its first OpenWay Riva meters shortly afterward. But it wasn’t until May 2016 that a “feature-locked” FAN specification was issued, and it took until the first quarter of this year for a “feature-complete” testing and certification process for conformance to the PHY standard to be put in place. 

TÜV Rheinland, which has been working with Wi-SUN since 2014, notes that higher layers of the profile, including the critical interoperability tests, are still under development. That means there’s no way for Itron, Silver Spring, or any other vendor to prove that its RF can run any other company’s Wi-SUN firmware, or visa versa. Plans for certifying interoperability test bed unit vendors and a test bed controller are underway, Beecher said. 

Wi-SUN is also preparing for the challenge of maintaining security across a multi-vendor environment, as evidenced by its agreement this month with GlobalSign to provide certificate authority services. And despite its use of unlicensed spectrum, its channel-hopping and channel agility make it hard to jam, he said. 

The race for low-power ubiquity

All this talk of wireless mesh networking standards may seem dry, but it’s actually central to the business premise behind Itron and Silver Spring’s merger. That’s because it’s central to their mutual goal to extend beyond the utility space for newer and much bigger business, out in smart city connectivity, ubiquitous field area networks, and the internet of things. 

With Cisco, Landis+Gyr, and a consolidated Itron-Silver Spring on board, Wi-SUN is positioning itself as one of three new technologies competing for the IOT networking business of the future. One is low-power wide area networks based on Semtech’s LoRa, now being used for some large-scale projects in Europe by more than 400 partners, with the backing of telcos such as Orange, and the narrowband IOT (NB-IOT) standard for use by cellular providers, now being tested for smart meters in Lisbon by Huawei and for networked parking and trash pickup sensors in Dublin by Vodaphone

Beecher spent several minutes describing some of the key differences between Wi-SUN FAN and the other two, including its higher bandwidth and lower latency, the merits of mesh over star topologies in avoiding network “shadows” and being able to add devices without adding new gateways, and of course, the technology’s 10-year operating history, albeit using pre-standards equipment. 

As for standards, LoRa doesn’t count, being proprietary to Semtech, but NB-IOT is part of the the wireless communications industry’s long-range 3GPP and LTE plans, making it likely that it will have many willing partners if trials show the technology works.

Wi-SUN has more arguments and data at its website. There are counter-arguments to consider, however. First, it’s important to note that mesh demonstrates better performance because it operates in areas with lots of meshed devices, well distributed across the landscape, that happen to pay for the cost of being networked through some other value stream -- being digital cash registers, or making sure an energy-saving LED replacement is working properly. Connecting random individual homes or businesses, or sensors on trucks or cargo containers, is a task that cellular providers are better equipped to handle, which is why Itron and Silver Spring have both incorporated cellular communications into their networks. 

There’s also the matter of battery-powered device support, which has long been promoted by Silver Spring and Itron. Right now that’s still in development, but Beecher said he expects it will move quickly enough to yield a specification that member companies can build to by the end of 2018, he said. This timeline tracks with what Itron has been projecting for its first commercially available OpenWay Riva battery-powered devices, while Silver Spring has had the Milli5 since early 2015, but has yet to say if they’re being used by customers.

Finally, there’s the matter of regulatory uncertainty over how to use mesh networks’ strongest asset -- the fact that they're already out there. Itron projects that the global market opportunity in IOT will grow to about $420 billion by decade's end, compared to about $20 billion in traditional smart metering and smart grid applications. No doubt utilities would like to get a share of that action alongside Itron and Silver Spring. 

Itron has been pitching utilities on the idea of using their existing networks to offer smart city services for some time now. Itron’s hometown utility, Spokane, Wash.-based Avista, has been the first to take it up on the offer, putting together a project called Urbanova that will network meters, streetlights and air quality sensors across the city’s 770-acre University District. 

Silver Spring, meanwhile, saw its first smart city work emerge from networked streetlighting projects in Paris and Copenhagen. In 2015 it launched its Starfish platform, the new name for its IOT-refocused networking technology, with test cities including Glasgow, Bristol, Kolkata, Chicago and San Antonio, Texas. 

There’s certainly appeal to the idea of earning revenues on a pre-existing network, Bryan Tantzen, general manager of Cisco’s connected industries and manufacturing business unit, noted during an IUW big-picture panel. But no utility has yet asked regulators to approve a business plan that involves using a rate-based asset to go into business in competition with the private sector, he noted. Even sharing network space with a city can be fraught with potential regulatory complications. 

Even so, it makes sense that utilities will remain one of the biggest boosters of the Wi-SUN Alliance, despite the decision to exchange the title "Smart Utility Network" for "Smart Ubiquitous Network." Utility members of the Wi-SUN alliance include PG&E, as well as Duke Energy, an Itron customer that’s working on multiple distributed intelligence and microgrid pilots, and Xcel Energy, which has recently won approval for a $612 million smart meter deployment in Colorado.