The Defining Anecdote
There is a common anecdote that very aptly compares the current state of the electric industry vis-à-vis the telecom industry.
It goes like this: “If Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were alive, Bell likely would be thrilled to see cell phones and other advanced telecommunications inventions in wide use, while Edison would see basically the same system in place as when he invented the light bulb.”
It is also not co-incidental that the two networks have been so compared. One can easily argue and defend the fact that both the networks have comparable complexity in their ‘distribution and transmission networks’ (generators, lines, transformers and substations in the electric industry; base stations, towers, spectrum, switching centers in the wireless telco industry).
However, when it comes to a control network, the telco network is vastly ahead of the electric network. And that is the bridge that the Smart Grid initiative is aimed to meet. In fact, if one reads the goals of the Smart Grid, its requirements are surprisingly similar in terms of complexity, scale and features to the telecom network that went through its revolution over the past decade and today can truly boast of successful all IP based deployments servings tens of millions of customers all around the world.
So it is no surprise that many entities (individuals, companies, standards and industry organizations) who have helped architect the internet revolution over the telco network feel that there are many experiences that the electric industry can benefit from instead of making the same mistakes from scratch while making the Smart Grid vision a reality.
Of course, knowledge is not a one way street. IP and Telecom architects need to work with architects in the electric network to understand their current protocols, architectures, needs and constraints as well. There have been many organizations that in the past few years have played different roles in trying to define different components of the ‘Smart Grid’ including Intelligrid, NIST and others.
All of these groups have done excellent work in clearly documenting architecture and needs from an ‘electric industry’ perspective (i.e. utilities and the ecosystem around them). However, till now, there was no single group that served as a consortium for IP and telecom architects to get together and describe as well as promote exactly how relevant ‘been there, done that’ experiences in the telco world could be applied to the Smart Grid initiative. After all, if the Smart Grid is a ‘communications overlay’ that needs to serve ‘millions’, that is exactly what today’s telecom networks do and they deal with the same issues that the Smart Grid is trying to solve: Security, Scalability, Reliability, Identity, Performance to name a few.
How the SIP Forum Smart Grid Group Formed
That is exactly where the Smart Grid Special Interest Group (SG-SIG) at the SIP Forum came in. Many of us felt the need for such a community that could focus on applying relevant experiences from the telecom network to help solve the Smart Grid network requirements. This need was also felt by TMCnet, a very well known media organization in the telecom industry. They organized their first Smart Grid Summit earlier this year where in addition to inviting several electric industry folks, they also asked telecom and IP architects to talk about their vision.
That is where I met Shidan Gouran, CEO of Home Jinni who also happened to be working with TMC (News - Alert) in conceptualization of the Smart Grid conference. Shidan, like others I knew, also strongly felt that there are many areas of mutual benefit between the utility and telco players in terms of technology, and they need to start talking. While Shidan was working to get different people together to join as a group (and with good success), I met with Richard Shockey of SIP Forum in that same conference. I knew Rich from the old telco days and we informally talked about creating a formal group that could help technologists define how popular technologies like SIP (which is already deployed in very large and complex wireline and wireless networks, and addresses many of the Smart Grid goals) can be applied to the Smart Grid network.
In the mean time, Shidan got in touch with some key folks who shared a common vision and organized a call so we could discuss what we could do. We quickly realized there was a need for the telco folks to be educated on what makes sense in the electric network (a hammer-handed approach of ‘whatever is your problem, SIP is the answer’ makes little sense) and someone needed to create technical documents that specifically answered the tough questions of “Why do I need it? What does it solve? Why is it better than what I have? Has it been proven?”
We asked Richard Shockey to see if the SIP Forum would be keen on creating a ‘Task Force’ where, in one line, our job would be do create and promote technical papers on how SIP could be applied to the Smart Grid. Of course, there are many other protocols besides SIP that apply, but the SIP Forum is about SIP and we feel it is a very important protocol to tackle first. The group was quickly approved in November 2009, with the initial core team consisting of:
· Henning Schulzrinne (News - Alert) (Columbia University)
· Joe Di Adamo (Siemens Enterprise)
· Shidan Gouran (Home Jinni)
· Eric Burger (Neustar)
· Marc Robbins, Rich Shockey (SIP Forum)
· Arjun Roychowdhury (Hughes Systique (News - Alert) Corp)
Since then our group has expanded to include participants from Cisco (News - Alert), CableLabs, LongBoard Technologies and others. You can read more about our goals, work and charter on our home page.
Achievements to Date
While the group was formed just about a month ago, we have already produced relevant papers on the why and how of how SIP can be used in various areas of the Smart Grid. Our current papers on how SIP achieves an ideal Demand Response architecture and motivation of SIP in the HAN have already been made public and we are currently working on similar papers for other verticals within the Smart Grid network. You can see an overall vision of where we see SIP being applied in this diagram. Through this group we also met with several talented individuals who are applying SIP/RTP to very niche areas such as SyncroPhasors in substations. Our group has also reached out to other standards and industry organizations, and we have received very favorable feedback. I feel very confident this group is on the right track. Both TMCnet and SIP Forum have been helpful in giving us the marketing umbrage to effectively get the world out to a large audience.
How can you contribute?
We have a vibrant mailing list, and encourage you to join and contribute. We are planning to organize our first BOF at the upcoming Smart Grid Summit in Miami (Jan. 20 to 22 2010). Some of us will also be speaking at different panels at the same conference. Join us there as well!
Why is this Work Important for the Smart Grid Market?
We see two benefits at a macro level: First, for utilities looking to align themselves with Smart Grid, they can better understand how existing protocols and technologies - which have already been proven in other similarly complex networks - can reduce their time to market. Second, a common architecture between the telco network and the electric control network opens up the marketplace to multiple players in the ecosystem. We know ‘opening up the marketplace’ is a double-edged sword, as it means both great opportunity and great threats to incumbents. We also know it is inevitable and at the end of the day, consumers do benefit. Who would have thought Vonage (News - Alert) could offer a phone service? Who would have thought Verizon can offer TV? That’s what IP enables. As technologists, our job is to create technologies that make sense. Let the market decide what people want to adopt.
But Hey, Consumers and Utilities Just Want to Control Their Thermostats!
I roll my eyes every time I hear that. Go back to our telco world five years ago. Voice was the ‘only app’. Look how the iPhone changed that world and in so little time. When you have an effectively implemented and easy to use consumer feature, consumers reinvent their needs. So to all of you who say ‘it’s only about the thermostat’, I say ‘that’s because you know no better today’. This industry will have its equivalent of the “iPhone effect.” Small steps are already being made by new players, and innovation is inevitable.
Arjun Roychowdhury is Assistant Vice President, Applications and Mobile Technologies at Hughes Systique Corporation. He also serves as the co-chair of the SIP Forum Smart Grid group and can be reached at email@example.com.
TMCnet publishes expert commentary on various telecommunications, IT, call center, CRM and other technology-related topics. Are you an expert in one of these fields, and interested in having your perspective published on a site that gets several million unique visitors each month? Get in touch.
Edited by Michael Dinan