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‘Perfect Storm’ brewing in world of wireless

Power of Smart Grid could force telcos, utilities to change their way of doing business


November 1, 2010  


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Rob Barlow has climbed hydro poles and run the research and development lab of Telus Communications Inc.’s mobility division, which makes him an expert in electrical distribution and telecom infrastructure initiatives.

Both sectors, says the founder and CEO of WireIE, a three-year-old Markham, Ont. firm that specializes in something called “Next Generation Network creation,” need to evolve.

The company, which bills itself as vendor agnostic, has partnered with large IT service firms such as Capgemini Canada, Accenture and Computer Science Corp. on projects ranging from network support to the complete overhauling of a carrier or utility’s existing network.

According to the firm, significant change is coming to the world of wireless network technology, which will impact the way hydro services will be delivered.

One of its key focus areas is the so-called Smart Grid.

“Our foundations for intelligent energy enable smart grids and harness sources of alternative energy such as wind and solar power,” the company says.

“This helps lower carbon emissions, improve disaster preparedness and meet corporate sustainability objectives. This translates into considerable savings over the long run.”

A white paper released last year and co-authored by WireIE’s chief technology officer Tim Brown, predicted that a “perfect storm is brewing on the horizon as utilities and their customers are faced with growing demand, an aging infrastructure, an aging workforce, environmental concerns and diminishing fossil fuel supplies.

The authors concluded that the Smart Grid of the future, while expected to affect all areas of the Electric Power System, cannot function without an extensive data communication system.

“Today’s cellular networks share a common operational characteristic with the way Smart Grid is envisioned,” they wrote. “While important assets are the network core, there are also critical interdependent assets found at the network’s edge.

“Smart Grid will be characterized by a two-way flow of electricity and information to create an automated, widely distributed energy deliver network. It incorporates into the grid the benefits of distributed computing and communications, to deliver real-time information to balance power supply and demand.”

Barlow, a licensed power line maintainer, spent 12 years with Hydro One until 1998 when he made a career switch and joined ClearNet Communications and moved on to Telus following the blockbuster buyout in 2000.

Even back then, his goal was how best to ultimately bring the two seemingly distinct entities together.

“Here is a simple example,” he says “You have all these distribution stations all around Ontario. There is a guy who drives around in a white truck with a heat gun three months of the year. He’s looking for hot spots. All you need is a camera with an infrared monitor that downloads data once a day and you have just basically (eliminated) a 40-year labour-intensive process into nothing. Twelve years ago I was thinking about that.”

Today, he is also thinking about the green connection and the fact that major telecommunications companies are not doing enough.

Bell and others telecommunications giants such as Telus and Rogers, says Barlow need a “royal kick in the ass” over their seeming reluctance to adopt solar energy as a means of powering cellular base stations.

“As an example, drive north on Highway 404 in Toronto and you will see all kinds of cell towers. The excuse Bell always use — and we have done some consulting for them — is that it costs a lot per square foot to put in solar. If you do something today it will always be more expensive than it will be in the future, but at least you are embracing a cause.

“Real green is taking what you have today and augmenting it as much as you possibly can and getting into the game.”