The True Meaning of Infrastructure-Free Fixed Network

By Kristie Anderson

Water utilities are increasingly demanding four key features in their water metering solutions – flexibility, reliability, efficiency and accuracy. Whether a city is growing and needs to expand its water system to meet the increased demand, or a rural town needs to replace aging infrastructure that stretches for miles, a water system that is flexible, reliable, efficient and accurate saves time and money – two resources that are always in short supply for utilities.

A quality, long-lasting water meter, the cash register of the water system, is a fundamental component in saving time and money by ensuring the reliability and accuracy of data. But, the life-line of the water system is the operational infrastructure, and it is equally important. The infrastructure makes the system possible, and makes the data actionable.

For water utilities, today’s landscape of infrastructure options varies greatly, from walk-by/drive-by AMR and traditional fixed-network to infrastructure-free fixed-network advanced metering analytics (AMA). Each option, of course, has its benefits and challenges. However, with the rapid growth of cellular network availability and capacity throughout the world, infrastructure-free managed solutions are fast-becoming one of the most efficient, flexible, reliable and accurate solutions for water utilities.

What Is an Infrastructure-free Fixed Network System?

Infrastructure-free fixed network solutions, such as Badger Meter’s BEACON AMA managed solution, leverage existing cellular networks and are not reliant on proprietary gateways. While water utilities using traditional fixed-network solutions must implement and manage their own physical networks, infrastructure-free fixed networks allow water utility teams to focus on what they do best – managing operations and serving customers. No expertise in traditional infrastructure management is needed, because there is no infrastructure to manage, making any deployment highly scalable and flexible to fit the needs of any utility.

This ability to take a “hands-off” approach with physical infrastructure provides the greatest flexibility for water utilities. Because there is no need to install physical gateways, utility teams can deploy new solutions much more quickly and efficiently, with the added capability of deploying cellular endpoints alongside already existing systems.

The flexibility of an infrastructure-free fixed network also means that coverage can be widespread. Since the solution leverages already existing cellular networks, anywhere there is cellular coverage, there can also be an infrastructure-free fixed-network system. For rural water utilities, or utilities in regions with vast territories, an infrastructure-free fixed network frees up driving and maintenance time, thus saving money. There is no longer a need for a utility employee to drive to a gateway and perform maintenance.
For instance, when City Corporation, a water utility serving Russellville, Ark., which is located in the heart of the Arkansas River Valley, was hovering at 18 to 19 percent non-revenue water loss, the utility team recognized a need for a new approach. The team decided to implement an infrastructure-free fixed network solution – Badger Meter’s BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics (AMA) managed solution with ORION Cellular endpoints.

“When you’re losing water at such high rates, providing service at a fair price becomes much more challenging,” said Steve Mallett, general manager at City Corporation. “The ORION Cellular endpoints as part of BEACON AMA were a perfect match for our objectives. Because the endpoints use cellular networks, we didn’t need to install gateways or other fixed-network infrastructure. We have the ability to deploy the system when and where we want to and can also install it alongside our existing system.”
By using an infrastructure-free fixed network, City Corporation was able to deploy its new water system quickly and efficiently. The utility now tracks non-revenue water on a daily basis, with accurate, real-time consumption data and analytics provided by the BEACON AMA software.

The Costs of Fixed-Network

As City Corporation experienced, water loss and increased operational costs can result in higher, potentially unfair, costs for water customers. One of the main objectives of any water utility is to ensure great customer service and high-quality water, at a fair price. Herein lies another difference between a traditional fixed network and an infrastructure-free fixed network – cost.

With a traditional fixed network system, gateway installation may include expenses related to:

  • crews for above-ground maintenance;
  • mounting infrastructure, such as poles, brackets and tripod mounts;
  • electrical connections; and
  • zoning permits.

Once the system is deployed, the utility must continue to pay for ongoing maintenance, such as service contracts or leases for storage space. However, with an infrastructure-free fixed network, utilities save both time and money. Traditional fixed network systems force utilities to make a large upfront investment to deploy the proprietary network infrastructure. That is money that could be used to address other water system components, such as aging infrastructure.

There is increasing discussion among the water utility industry, municipalities and the media regarding the dire state of aging water infrastructure throughout the United States and its impact on water consumers. In May, an entire week – Infrastructure Week – was devoted to the topic. With utilities across the country evaluating water system replacement and increasing cellular network capabilities, the money saved by using infrastructure-free fixed network systems can make a difference.

In southeastern Illinois, EJ Water Cooperative, which was scheduling a nearly 4,000-mile drive to complete a meter reading cycle each month, was facing the rising costs of its aging system. To address these issues, Bill Teichmiller, CEO of EJ Water Cooperative, and his team decided to implement Badger Meter’s BEACON AMA managed solution enabled by ORION Cellular endpoints.

After installing 1,900 ORION Cellular endpoints, and deploying BEACON AMA throughout 15 percent of the service area, EJ Water saw huge reductions in the average cost per work order. Before the system installation, 35 percent of work orders were customer disputes about usage, and the average cost per work order was $34. With the new system in place, EJ Water Cooperative was able to determine whether there was a leak without having to send a technician to the location, thereby reducing the cost per work order. Overall, this has led to a 47 percent drop in work orders in 2016 and $93,000 a year in savings.

The new system also provided some unexpected benefits. “We didn’t expect as large of a reduction as we’ve seen in work orders for our field service team,” Teichmiller said. The reduction in man-hours has allowed the Cooperative to make better strategic decisions about upcoming projects and has allowed it to be more proactive in repairing high value assets. The Cooperative was also able to move field-service staff to other projects to help complete the deployment ahead of schedule, including the expansion of BEACON AMA to all of its largest customers by the end of 2017.

Powered by a Secure Cellular Network

In addition to its flexibility and cost saving measures, infrastructure-free fixed network systems provide security. Since they leverage commercially available cellular networks, infrastructure-free fixed networks securely and efficiently deliver cellular meter reading data to the utility. In fact, cellular networks already have a proven track record in the water utility industry. For years, cellular has been used as the backhaul of AMI networks, or the intermediary connection between the core network and the smaller sub-networks.

Plus, cellular networks are one of the first to be restored after a crisis. So, water utilities can rest assured that their systems will be back online quickly should a major storm or other situation occur.

The Future of Infrastructure-Free Networks

As utilities strive to create even greater efficiencies in their water systems, new cellular networks are being put into place to meet these needs. For example, as the LTE network evolves toward the release of a CatM version dedicated to the Internet of Things (IoT), Badger Meter continues to work with network partners to provide solutions designed for Smart City applications.

As technology and consumer needs continue to evolve, metering manufacturers are responding with innovative and powerful solutions that address flexibility, efficiency, reliability and accuracy – the four key tenants of a successful water system.

Kristie Anderson
Marketing Manager | Badger Meter

Kristie Anderson is a marketing manager for Badger Meter with more than 20 years of experience in marketing and product management. She is responsible for Badger Meter’s BEACON Advanced Metering Analytics managed solution.

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