LTE-M Standard Redefines Cellular

Efficiency For Water Meter Readings

Source: Badger Meter

The term “cellular” often calls to mind certain assumptions and limitations based on prior experience with consumer cellphone networks. Don’t confuse cellular-based Internet of Things (IoT) applications with past cellular experiences, though. The relatively new Long-Term-Evolution-for-Machines (LTE-M) standard represents a whole new ballgame. In short, “This is not your father’s cellular network.”

Don’t Confuse Consumer And Commercial Applications

IoT for industrial applications — also known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) — has an entirely different set of needs compared to consumer applications for voice, text, and web-access capabilities. This created the motivation for developing different task-specific cellular implementations for applications such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). LTE-M is one such implementation that warrants examination through an entirely different lens than previous cellular-based AMI solutions (Figure 1).

(Graphic courtesy of Badger Meter, Inc.)

Figure 1. LTE-M meter-data transmission demands (fixed transmission point, low data requirements) are significantly easier and less expensive to accommodate than consumer smartphone demands (mobile transmission source, intensive data requirements). 

LTE-M is designed for applications that need low-volume, low-bandwidth, and low-cost communications solutions. It makes an entirely new case for cellular communications in meter-data-collection applications, as it provides an interface between AMI infrastructure and cellular networks that will operate with the LTE and 5G network technology. This creates new advantages for engineering firms serving water treatment and distribution utilities, management and IT personnel within utilities, and even forward-thinking municipal leaders looking for the advantages of smart city solutions (Figure 2).

(Chart courtesy of Badger Meter, Inc.)

Figure 2. This chart demonstrates why cellular endpoint communication should not be equated with cellular smartphone calls.

A Different Approach, Specifically For Industrial Applications

LTE-M is a global standard for a low-power, wide-area network (LPWAN) developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) to suit the needs of industrial applications using many devices with low bandwidth requirements. The 3GPP unites seven standards-development organizations — ARIB, ATIS, CCSA, ETSI, TSDSI, TTA, and TTC — serving the North American, European, and Asian telecommunications environments.

For the data collection needs of water and wastewater applications — including consumer billing data as well as data for internal operations — LTE-M endpoints can provide a variety of attributes that offer greater efficiency and economy. They are especially suitable for applications that require or desire:

  • Reliability. Cellular network components are designed to incorporate 99.999 percent uptime, which makes LTE-M one of the most reliable solutions of AMI deployments.
  • Resiliency. In any emergency, the cellular network is the first network to be reestablished, providing the earliest access to the status of your water network.
  • Low Bandwidth. For applications without data-intensive, real-time requirements, the LTE-M standard provides a good balance of cost vs. capability for short bursts of communication.
  • Broad Coverage. LTE-M incorporates privacy, reliability, resilience, and secure end-to-end connectivity with wide-ranging geographic coverage.
  • Long Battery Life. By using low power requirements and periodic transmission of collected data, LTE-M-based units can provide a longer service life.
  • Good Indoor and Underground Transmission Connections. In conjunction with long battery life, LTE-M-compatible devices are reliable at propagating signals from installations deep inside of buildings or underground vaults.
  • Open-Standards Longevity. As an open-standards platform that enjoys broad industry support from equipment and service providers, LTE-M provides room for growth and longevity without fear of obsolescence. Because the LTE-M endpoint takes care of translating between a utility’s data collection encoder and the cellular infrastructure, the AMI hardware will not become obsolete when the cellular transmission network gets upgraded to the “5G NR (New Radio)” standard adopted by 3GPP (Figure 3).

(Photo courtesy of Badger Meter, Inc.)

Figure 3. Complementing the water meter encoder with an LTE-M endpoint provides flexibility for migrating to next-generation cellular capabilities when available.

  • Grow-As-You-Go Flexibility. With broad access to cellular carriers already in place, changing over to an LTE-M solution can take place at the water utility’s convenience, even to the point of changing over meters for the most critical accounts first — one at a time if necessary.
  • The Original Network as a Service (NaaS) Solution. Cellular network reliability and broad coverage deliver an affordable bundled solution for utilities, eliminating the guesswork of future support and maintenance costs.
  • Low Cost. The new LTE-M standard for IIoT connectivity provides scalable support for large numbers of inexpensive devices, expanding affordable IoT capabilities to more metering applications.

The affordable total cost of ownership for LTE-M data collection systems also avoids the hidden costs of other AMI data collection approaches. Those include costs for vehicle maintenance and fuel in mobile-read data collection, or network and gateway maintenance costs for fixed-network data collection. Take a look at an ROI Projection Tool for deploying smart water meters with infrastructure-free AMI.

The Big Picture Advantages Of LTE-M Cellular AMI

Aside from LTE-M’s coverage and performance advantages for AMI, there are also long-term behind-the-scenes advantages. As part of a larger evolving cellular infrastructure, it takes advantage of the short-term and long-term capabilities and knowledge of leading cellular communications providers. That means reliable and resilient access to widespread geographic coverage today, with the backup of the world’s leading experts for ongoing research, development, and maintenance moving forward. For example, in times of major emergencies such as hurricanes, cellular networks have proved to be more resilient than other utilities. This offers water distribution utilities access to the best communications performance without having to reinvent the wheel and without the risk of having to build, manage, and maintain their own infrastructure.

Another good advantage of an LTE-M system is that through open connectivity, it can support larger smart city efforts beyond the scope of water distribution. In fact, forward-thinking metering companies are already part of smart city alliances, along with the leading cellular service providers and their network infrastructure suppliers.

Dealing With Extremes

Although LTE-M offers better communication for in-building and in-ground meter locations, no single technology can guarantee 100 percent coverage of every potential metering location. Be sure to work with a provider who can provide multiple carriers to provide extended coverage.