By Caleb Gordon

With Telstra having recently announced plans to close the 2G network by the end of 2016, we take a look at the main implications this decision will have on the utility sector – and how utilities can make the switch to 3G and 4G networks.

SM, or Global System for Mobile communications, was the second generation of mobile technology after Analog.

According to Telstra Networks Manager Mike Wright, GSM was the mobile system that changed the world – it created one of the most complete and comprehensive mobile standards the world had ever seen, making the mobile phone accessible to the mass market. GSM also introduced us to international roaming, text messaging and the early mobile internet.

With the development of 3G and 4G networks, GSM now counts for only 1 per cent of Telstra’s mobile network traffic in Australia, but it still remains widely used for telemetry and machine to machine (M2M) communication.

Utility sector impacts

The utility sector was among the early adopters of cellular telemetry equipment, and many utilities are still purchasing 2G modems today. According to Maxon Australia Research and Development Manager Caleb Gordon, the major challenge facing these organisations is in firstly finding an alternative, and then implementing the change.

There will be some who may opt for the easy solution of changing to a different carrier offering 2G network coverage – but this is simply delaying the inevitable.

For those that look to move to 3 and 4G networks, the process will depend on whether their operating system is integrated or modular.

An integrated measurement and control solution may mean that the entire energy meter or RTU has to be replaced – usually at significant cost. With modular systems, the modem swap should involve finding an alternative which either already supports all the communication commands required, or which can be modified to do so.

Once a suitable alternative is confirmed, the major challenge to these customers is in the physical process of swapping these 2G modems out for 3G or 4G alternatives. This will normally involve at a minimum, implementation of a cabling change whereby the old modem cable connections are replaced entirely or an adapter cable is custom manufactured.

Caleb says the final step, which is often the most painful, is replacing the equipment itself; this can often be a costly and time consuming process, involving significant man hours and complicated logistics. As this can often be even more costly than the replacement equipment itself, it is crucial to ensure that the replacement is going to do the job well and that the technicians have all the tools they need for the swapout.

What action should utilities take now?

Utilities should, in the very near future, evaluate how many units will need to be upgraded, then start the process of determining the engineering alternatives. Utilities should take into consideration the hardware options and potential compatibility challenges. Consideration should extend to what components of the existing system also require upgrades, so that these can be combined together with field visits and routine maintenance. Thankfully the coverage of the 3G network is sufficient enough to cover most of the 2G install base already, but in areas where it is not, it is advised to get in touch with the carriers directly in order to work out the best approach.

Caleb says that, “Maxon has some innovative tools to assist in this process, from customer-specific customisation of software and firmware interfaces to modem emulation, which can help make the 2G-3G/4G upgrade as quick and cost effective as possible.”

Managing the transition

In summary, transitioning from 2G doesn’t have to be difficult. The key is to start planning your move to 3G or 4G networks today, and consult with industry experts for the most efficient and cost-effective ways to manage the change.

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