Friday, May 07, 2010

Europe and US take different routes to smart meters

When it comes to the roll-out of smart meters by power and water utilities it seems that the US and Europe are taking different approaches.

According to market analyst IMS Research, in the US it is wireless mesh networks which are most likely to be used for providing sensor communications links.

In Europe and Asia it looks like powerline communications will play a bigger part in the roll-out of smart meters.

North American smart meter shipments exceeded 8 million units in 2009 and a third were based on RF mesh networks, said IMS.

A further 7 million RF-Mesh meters could be shipped this year, said the analyst.

“It is clear now that RF Mesh is a popular choice for utilities looking to implement smart grid technologies in North America,” said senior analyst Michael Markides.

See: RFMD works with Ember to add ZigBee to smart meters

While in Europe, namely Spain and France, shipments of PLC-based smart meters are predicted to double in the near-term.

“These expected rollouts in Europe will give the market a surge beginning in late 2010, with further market volume realized globally as anticipated PLC shipments of smart meters begin in China in 2012, and onwards,” said Markides.

While Spain and France are strong adopters of PLC smart meters, Markides believes Ireland will head toward wireless communications.

“But what about the UK, Germany and the Netherlands?” asked Markides.

“Solutions other than PLC are in play here due to more complicated and layered electric utility structures in each of these regions,” he said.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Plaster Networks PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter

The PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter is the first power-line adapter we've reviewed in a long time (more will be reviewed soon) and like all power-line adapters, it offers a quick way to extend your network via the electrical wiring of your home or apartment building. This is a handy and effective solution for those far corners of your home where your router's wireless signal may be weak or nonexistent.

The PLN3 is rather bulky but it has two Ethernet ports, as opposed to only one like many others, to host up to two Ethernet-ready network devices. It also comes with an online service that helps monitor the power-line connection. The device is compatible with all HomePlug AV power-line adapters from other vendors and costs around $90.

Note that you'll need at least two adapters to create a power-line connection. If you don't already have some at home, Plaster Networks is offering a deal by knocking off $30 if you buy a pair of the PLN3 adapters at a time.

Design and setup
The PLN3 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter looks like a large power adapter for a small electronics device, such as a cordless phone or an external hard drive. It's about the size of two decks of cards stacked together. With this large size, it would be better if the adapter had a power cord, instead of just two prongs. As it is, the only way to hook it to the power is to snap it over a receptacle. This is a bad design as the adapter takes up a relatively large physical space and might even obstruct other adjacent sockets.

As the PLN3 doesn't feature a passthrough for the power socket, you will need a power strip in the far corner to extend the network. Note that the adapter might not work with all power strips or surge protectors because these devices generally degrade or block signal of HomePlug AV adapters. In this case, the sure way is to plug it directly into the wall and make sure you have extra power outlets. To its credit, the PLN3 has two Ethernet ports. This means it can support up to two Ethernet-ready devices, such as a printer and a NAS server, at the far end. At the near end, where the adapter is hooked to a router, though, the second Ethernet port is redundant.

As with most other power-line adapters, there's really nothing to setting up the PLN3. For a typical power-line connection, say between the existing network and a device in the basement, you'll need two power-line adapters. The first adapter is to connect to the network by hooking it to an Ethernet port of the router (or the hub). The second adapter is connected to the device at the far corner. After that, you just plug both adapters into the power sockets. If the two locations share the same electrical wiring, which they do in most homes or apartment buildings, the network connection is now live. This whole process takes just a minute or two; we had no problem setting up the PLN3, and you won't either, most likely.

The PLN3 comes with a CAT5 network cable, which is needed to connect it to other network devices.

What makes the PLN3 different from other power-line adapters is the included Plaster Networks Service that automatically updates the adapter to the latest firmware and allows users to keep tab of their power-line network over the Internet.

This service is easy to set up. You just need to access it by pointing a browser to from a computer that's connected to the Internet via the PLN3 adapter. You will then be prompted to register a new account (or log into an existing one). Then the new adapter will also then be recognized and registered automatically.

From then on, each time you login at the same address, you will be able to view the power-line connection's status, activity history log, and so on. You can also change the password for the each PLN3 Powerline adapter. This is a necessary step for an apartment building because if you don't enable password protection or change the default password, others in the same building might be able to join your network (and tap into your Internet connection, for example) by plugging another HomePlug AV-compliant power adapter into any of the building's power outlet.

Continued ...

Monday, May 03, 2010

Atheros weaves mesh networking effort - Standard could unite Wi-Fi, powerline chips in home nets

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Atheros Communications is trying to rally interest in defining a standard for mesh technology in home networks. Such a standard would help the company merge and add value to its Wi-Fi and powerline chips.

The IEEE 802.11 group that created the Wi-Fi standard has tried for years to set a standard for mesh networks, so far without success. The problem, in part, has been efforts have involved a wide range of stakeholders interested in a variety of home, metro, military and public service nets.

"When you start with that kind of crowd in a room you get a mess," said Bill McFarland, chief technology officer at Atheros in an interview at the Embedded Systems Conference

"We are interested in standardization, but we will do it in a focused way for mesh in powerline, Wi-Fi and MoCA," McFarland said, referring to the Multimedia over Coax Alliance. "We are only talking about home networking," he said.

The discussions so far have involved members of MoCA, other Wi-Fi companies and members of the HomePlug Powerline Alliance. They have not yet decided whether they want to try to set an ad hoc standard or work through the 802.11 group.

"There is a lot of discussion of that at the moment, and each approach has its advantages," said McFarland. "I expect it will be resolved in the next few months," he said.

Atheros is in an early stage of developing its own mesh technology. It demonstrated traffic running across Wi-Fi and powerline nets over a few discrete hops at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. However, it is yet to show robust multi-hop technology supporting quality-of-service policies.

Atheros envisions hybrid home nets that can use powerline to help Wi-Fi nets extend their range or route past walls. "There's a great use model story there," he said.

Of course, vendors such as Atheros will have to create software to make the different device IDs, addresses and keys on hybrid networks appear as if they are on a single net for consumers, McFarland noted.

The work on mesh standards comes as Atheros is sampling a new powerline chip set from Intellon which it acquired in September. As many as five other chip makers are about to debut powerline chips that, like Intellon, are based on the ad hoc standard of the HomePlug group and the IEEE 1901. They include Arkados, Gigle Networks, Renesas and STMicroelectronics.

"The big evolution is we now have an IEEE standard coupled with price reductions that will let us move from installations based on adapters to being embedded," said McFarland. "Powerline has never been embedded into another devoice, but now TVs and Blu-Ray players might have it built right in.

"We are across the chasm in embedded Wi-Fi and we are about to cross it for powerline," he added.

Long term, Atheros believes it can produce integrated silicon for Wi-Fi and powerline, making the mesh software even more strategic. "We don't have definite product plans, but I don't see how it would not come to pass eventually," he said.