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Case study: How Inmarsat helps Tennessee utility roll out smart metering

Steve Rogerson
August 17, 2017



An energy company in rural Tennessee has overcome the connectivity challenges it faced when deploying smart metering infrastructure with the help of satellite provider Inmarsat. Using satellite technology, the electricity provider has been able to complete the rollout of its smart metering project, bringing a wide range of benefits to the business and its customers.
 
Benton County is in north-west Tennessee, bordering the western branch of the Tennessee River and often referred to as the gateway to Middle Tennessee. Aside from the city of Camden, the only other largely populated areas are the agrarian communities of Big Sandy and Holladay.
 
The county’s electricity requirements are met by Benton County Electric System (BCES), whose 38 employees work to deliver power to more than 10,000 customers. BCES’s philosophy is to offer fair and equitable rates for all. To accomplish this, BCES began an initiative five years ago to install automated metering infrastructure that would collect meter data every 15 minutes.
 
Having near-real time access to these data would allow BCES to respond better to customer needs, expedite engineering analysis and provide holistic data of the electric system for a cost-based rate design. The company would be able to connect and disconnect services remotely, monitor power outages across the county, and offer new services such as prepay. Moreover, reducing its reliance on manual meter checks with automated meters promised to save countless travel hours for BCES’s staff.
 
The company faced several challenges in rolling out its automated metering infrastructure due to the patchy and unreliable cellular coverage typical of rural and remote locations.
 
Scott Owens, director of communications and technical services at BCES, explained: “We initially adopted a hybrid connectivity model for our meters, connecting our collectors on our fibre-optic network in certain areas, and private cellular networks in others. However, there were gaps in the network where neither of the two services were available or feasible, meaning that some isolated meters still had to be read manually, draining time and resources. We needed a connectivity solution that would enable us to fully utilise the integrated automated metering infrastructure.”
 
BCES set about finding a partner that could provide a reliable alternative to its existing connectivity methods. It chose Network Innovations, a partner of Inmarsat, and a provider of BGAN M2M satellite communications.
 
Powered by Inmarsat's global 3G L-band satellite network and optimised for lower bandwidth and throughput than the standard BGAN offering, with a minimum billing increment of 1kbyte, BGAN M2M provides a reliable, IP-based real-time connectivity service that seamlessly integrates into any network. It supplies a reliable, always-available service and connects monitoring and control applications in remote, unstaffed locations, giving full visibility and management of dispersed assets across an entire operational area.
 
“We listened to and fully understood Benton County Electric’s unique challenges and goals,” said Eric Verheylewegen, executive vice president of Network Innovations. “Our extensive experience working with BGAN M2M and designing solutions for the utility industry, ensured the project was a success.”
 
With a fully-reliable network in place, BCES has been able to complete the rollout of its automated metering infrastructure. This has enabled the implementation of a fair and equitable rate design for every customer. The network has also ensured the success of prepay services, which read, disconnect and connect meters daily, giving BCES’s customers more choices and information.
 
“The Inmarsat BGAN M2M service has given us the connectivity, security and cost effectiveness that we needed to complete this project,” said Owens. “Inmarsat stood out for its reliability and ease of set up. The installation was so straightforward that if you can point a compass, you can install the small size BGAN terminal.
 
“Connectivity is the key to everything we do. We don’t need a super-fast service; we need a stable and reliable service. The customer service we received when implementing the BGAN terminals from Network Innovations was outstanding and appreciated in a small company such as ours. The service provided the foundation we need for our automated metering project, which has saved us time and money, and enabled us to improve the experience of our customers.”