It’s a disruptive time for the utility industry. With new technologies creating a myriad of challenges; utilities like energy, water, and gas companies need to find ways to continue reading meters efficiently.  From cyberattacks to rooftop solar energy storage, utility companies worldwide are facing numerous issues that need to be addressed quickly.  The U.S. energy infrastructure fuels the economy and without a stable energy supply, health and welfare are threatened, and the U.S. economy cannot function.  Presidential Policy Directive 21 identifies the Energy Sector as uniquely critical because it provides an “enabling function” across all critical infrastructure sectors. More than 80 percent of the country’s energy infrastructure is owned by the private sector, supplying fuels to the transportation industry, electricity to households and businesses, and other sources of energy that are integral to growth and production across the nation (Source: Energy Sector | CISA)

utility meter SIP modem

Typically, utility companies will challenge their data collection, or meter reading group, to collect their readings on monthly or even daily intervals.  While a number of these meters have been replaced with TCP/IP based solutions, there remains a substantial install base of PSTN meters that cannot be replaced due to cost, lack of connectivity, business agreements, or one of many other barriers.  This collection operation is often facilitated by a third-party polling application that controls a physical modem via AT commands to dial out and connect to these remote analog modems.  After a connection is established, the usage information is collected and pulled into a database.  Keeping this database up-to-date is the primary objective of the data collection group and is critically important for business processes such as billing, forecasting, usage tracking, etc.  With the ongoing transition from traditional analog telephone lines to VoIP, utility companies are facing obstacles when it comes to reading meters.  Telephone operators are no longer interested in providing analog or T1/E1 PSTN connections that are required for these server-side applications.  In the few locations where these lines can be found, the cost per line is being driven up to reflect the carriers desire to retire the technology.  This transition to VoIP is creating a perfect storm for utility companies who have an obligation to collect their metering data but are being left in the dark by their telecom providers.

It is more important than ever for utility companies to equip themselves with the knowledge of what new technology solutions are available in the marketplace that are fully compatible with the top utility metering applications.  With the biggest transformation facing electric and gas companies today being technological advances in communications, usage of the traditional analog telephone network is becoming more and more problematic.  Whenever a major technology, especially one with a long history of regulation, approaches the end of its life, being prepared and ready for the transition is the key to success. With any technological disruption comes major change, but utility companies need to be able to adapt quickly to survive and come up with a cost-effective transition plan.

In the past, traditional phone lines used circuit switching technology delivered over a copper line.  These copper lines were used, along with a physical modem, to dial into industrial meters, establish a data channel, and complete a data collection cycle.  Over the last couple of decades, technology-specific services have been migrating to a packet switching technology over the public Internet in the form of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). VoIP is a telecommunication service that takes analog audio signals and converts them into digital data that can be transmitted over standard Internet connections. While this transition has provided the opportunity for tremendous cost savings and more reliable connections, VoIP protocols have been designed with voice service in mind. This means that traditional analog modems used by utility metering applications are no longer compatible with these technological improvements.

Current Challenges Facing Utility Companies

As the analog network is growing closer to becoming obsolete; it’s important for utility companies to find a modem that can operate under this new technology while remaining compatible with the common utility metering applications.  These software solutions used by most utility companies capture, validate, and analyze data from multiple devices and data sources and offer near real-time data readings on a single platform.  The platform is designed with an advanced architecture to gather readings and can operate on-premise or as a SaaS (Software as a Service) solution.

The ever more rapid advancement and adaptation of new technologies has left a gap in legacy communication systems.  E1/T1 and analog POTS lines are increasingly being replaced by Ethernet based VoIP systems, leaving utility companies with modem technology that can no longer work within the new telecom infrastructure.  While TCP/IP meter solutions have become available, switching to a new meter architecture is often an unworkable solution.  As it involves not only hardware acquisition for all locations, but also requires sending a technician out to each and every site and interfering with customers’ daily operations while installation takes place.  As the server-side modems become obsolete and unworkable, it can be cost prohibitive for utility companies to replace their existing installed inventory of modem-based meters to accommodate these changes.  Most are looking for a simple solution to help make the transition seamless without having to change their entire infrastructure and disrupt business.

For the utility companies that have not yet felt the pressure from their telecom providers to make the switch to VoIP, there are still factors pushing them away from their existing hardware modem solutions.  Most hardware modem manufactures are well into the sunset period for their legacy modem solutions and utility companies are finding that their modem servers have reached end-of-life and are no longer supported by the manufacturer.  As a result, replacement parts can no longer be found.  This creates an urgent problem as a hardware failure threatens to bring down business critical operations for an indefinite period.  Maintaining these physical modems and analog lines is also a major blocking factor for companies that are making the transition to virtualized and cloud-based network infrastructure.  Physical modem hardware prevents cloud migration projects from being completed, because it not only takes up expensive rack space but telephony providers are also unwilling to move/install physical lines into new datacenters.  With an increasing shift to remote work, utilities are beginning to see the benefit of a reduced physical footprint and it is only a matter of time before they begin transitioning their infrastructure to the cloud.  It is becoming clearer that a software solution is the only resolution to this issue.

Time is of the essence for utility companies that rely heavily on hardware equipment and endpoint devices that use modems to communicate.  Between the VoIP transition, obsolete end-of-life hardware, and cloud migration it is crucial that utility data collection teams quickly come up with a plan for business continuity when these factors converge and they find themselves with the critical problem of being unable to poll their meters.  In most cases, the remote modems cannot be replaced due to the high costs associated with replacing the existing infrastructure.  With limited options out there, one company has done their due diligence and launched a revolutionary solution that offers a clear path forward for the industry.

VOCAL Keeps Energy Level High In Utility Market

VOCAL Technologies has been leading the way since 1986 in the design of software and hardware solutions under license for voice, video, and facsimile and data communications. The company develops and applies advanced technologies for superior voice, video, fax and data communications. With a broad range of innovative design solutions that yield the highest quality communications at the lowest cost and an insight into the technical challenges of the telecommunications industry; it was natural for them to develop a unique solution to help navigate utility companies through the VoIP revolution.

As the utility industry continues to evolve and face many challenges with the move from analog to VoIP phone lines; VOCAL knew it was the right time to develop a software solution that was fully compatible with the latest utility metering applications. Their goal was to keep the energy flowing in the utility industry and help make the transition to VoIP less costly.  With cloud-based modems now a firm reality; the VOCAL SIP Analog Modem Server, or SAMS, is a unique IP-based software solution for inter-operating with legacy modems without the need for modem banks with E1/T1 connections.  This Virtual Modem Server allows a utility company to deploy a server in the cloud, which can work with the modern VoIP phone network infrastructure based on SIP and RTP, instead of using T1/E1 lines to connect to the PSTN.  The Virtual Modem server contains true soft-modems and not just an AT command set on a TCP socket pretending to be a modem.  This allows the server to connect to true voice band modems deployed on the PSTN, and thus does not require installation of additional equipment. With no hardware required, VOCAL has given utility companies a cost-effective solution that allows them to see a high ROI. SAMS is fully compatible with existing communication platforms including popular utility metering applications like Itron MV-90 xi, PrimeStone – PrimeRead, Honeywell Elster, and Autosol. For example, the Itron MV-90 xi is a proven solution for interval data collection, management and analysis. MV-90 xi can be used as a data collection engine that interfaces to existing data management and analysis tools, or as an end-to-end interval data collection and management solution.  SAMS can allow a utility company to continue using their MV-90 system with tradition analog meters while connecting the server side via VoIP instead of physical POTS lines. With full compatibility with these popular meter reading applications; utility companies can operate business as usual.

When it comes to end-of-life modem products, VOCAL’s SAMS software is a great replacement solution for Cisco’s Access Servers (2500 series, AS5350), Cisco PVDM Digital Modem Modules (PVDM2-12DM, PVDM2-24DM, PVDM2-36DM), modem server banks, individual box modems, and internal modem cards.  The cost savings brought on by switching from expensive ISDN and analog lines to VoIP has made the IP switchover a desirable transition instead of a painful requirement.  Integrating the modem infrastructure and the SIP infrastructure has become more and more necessary. Ideally, running modems on the cloud server, connected to a SIP infrastructure would be the best scenario.

Using a Cloud Modem Server, such as VOCAL’s SIP Analog Modem Server (SAMS), allows utility companies to get the benefits of SIP infrastructure, without going through the costly replacement of legacy infrastructure.  The server can run in the data center, where all of the company’s other network facing services reside. This can save money and facilitate changing business models that are moving away from physically located hardware and into remote virtual working environments.  From the viewpoint of the controlling application, the SAMS server is seen the same way as any other modem. The remote modems can be called from the SAMS server to their existing PSTN deployments, just like they always have.  The devices can also place calls into the SAMS server.  The SAMS server behaves just as a bank of modems connected to ISDN would, all while running on off the shelf hardware or any standard virtualized environment.

VOCAL’s SAMS solution is currently used in over 48 utility companies worldwide. This includes customers in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Sweden, Finland, and Spain.  Once installed, SAMS typically pays for itself within a four-to-six month timeframe; providing a huge benefit to utility companies who are trying to adapt to VoIP technology without breaking the bank.  VOCAL has taken a technical disruption and turned it into a graceful transition that will keep the energy lines open now and well into the future.