2024 Likely to be Watershed Year for Smart Metering in Power Sector: Interview

Airtel connects 27.9 million devices on its network smart metering and other use cases

January 30, 2024


Smart meters are a critical component of the government’s power sector reforms and are expected to contribute significantly to improving the billing and collection efficiencies of distribution companies (DISCOMs).

The government has targeted installing over 200 million smart meters across India. As of now, about 8.5 million smart meters are in service. Under the government’s Revamped Distribution Sector Scheme (RDSS), smart meters are being deployed through the public-private partnership on a total expenditure (TOTEX) model.

In an exclusive interview with Mercom, Ganesh Lakshminarayanan, CEO of Airtel Business (India), shares his thoughts about smart metering solutions in India’s power sector and Airtel’s offerings in the smart metering space.

Here are the excerpts from the interview:

Can you tell us about Airtel’s Cellular IoT services and their application in smart metering?

Airtel’s traditional strength lies in connectivity. This can be offered to end users through mobile devices, and it can also be offered to an enterprise to power their smart devices.

Airtel connects 27.9 million devices on its network across a plethora of use cases, including smart metering.

Airtel empowers all its IoT customers with the Airtel IoT Hub, a platform to centrally manage and control the SIMs and devices deployed on the field. The platform gives customers complete control of all aspects of the SIM lifecycle – provisioning, billing and payment, network configuration, issue management, and support – and is at the core of our engagement with IoT customers.

We are also building an ‘IoT-grade’ network, which means that our network is being designed to support the scale and behavior of IoT devices. We are investing in rolling out our Narrowband IoT (NBIoT) network, which is geared towards low throughput devices such as smart meters, which require deep indoor and rural coverage. We are using these strategic investments in our IoT platform and network to build differentiated offerings for our smart metering customers.

How is Cellular IoT integral to smart metering?

Utilities in India are undergoing a digital transformation driven by government-mandated initiatives aimed at bringing in economic efficiencies and eliminating manual interventions.

The government of India has laid down its plans to implement a pan-India Smart Grid, which will enable India to meet its future energy demands while curtailing aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses. The first step in establishing the smart grid is deploying advanced metering infrastructure, replacing 250 million conventional meters with smart meters.

Airtel is working with utility providers to deploy millions of meters powered with NBIoT connectivity. Cellular IoT provides utilities with a standards-based communication offering for connecting the meters, which ensures there are no interoperability challenges between different service providers.

Another key benefit of licensed cellular networks is the plug-and-play nature of the offering. These networks do not require customers to incur any upfront capex for network rollout and eliminate costs and challenges associated with deploying, managing, and operating these proprietary networks.

All smart metering deployments entail long-term contracts with a cumulative deployment and service period of ten years; thus, cellular communication technologies provide the right mix of security, reliability, and commercial viability required by system integrators (SIs) bidding for these contracts.

What do you mean by end-to-end IoT solution for smart metering? What does this entail?

In simple terms, a smart meter stack can be thought of in four layers. The first is the meter hardware, and the second is the communication network or the connectivity. Third is the cloud infrastructure for data storage and analytics. Lastly, the application layer where all the intelligence resides, i.e., Head End System (HES) for data ingestion, Meter Data Management (MDM) for data analytics, and integration with DISCOMs system for billing, load, and demand forecasting.

In this stack, Airtel has always been present across communication and cloud infrastructure layers. For our customers in the IoT space, we now have bundled connectivity and cloud, thus making it easier and economical for them to deploy their IoT solutions. Furthermore, we have now built the capability to offer Head End System (HES) application, MDM application, and prepaid billing software as a bundled offering with IoT connectivity, with the applications being hosted on the Airtel cloud.

How can smart metering in general and cellular IoT in particular help electricity consumers and power utilities?

Many state utilities in the country suffer from poor financial health, high debt, high AT&C losses, and poor distribution infrastructure. The RDSS introduced in 2021 aims to reform the power distribution sector and restore the financial stability of the DISCOMs.

A smart meter is not a panacea, but it is a good place to start. It helps DISCOMs reduce T&D losses and operational expenditure, allows for better demand forecasting, and ultimately increases revenue. This ecosystem mandates real-time transmission of data from these meters to the Meter Data Management System for data analytics and better demand-supply forecasting.

Given the geographical and topographic spread for deployment of meters across the country, licensed cellular networks emerge as the most feasible communication infrastructure for connecting these meters.

The government is already working on Time-Of-Day tenders to supply electricity. You can expect more of those projects to come through when these meters become mainstream. On the consumer end, smart meters offer more transparency and insights into their usage. Once these projects acquire scale, they will also offer consumers the flexibility to select the vendors from whom they wish to procure electricity.

How does Airtel’s IoT solution for smart metering distinguish itself from competitors?

Airtel is working with utility providers to deploy millions of meters powered with NBIoT connectivity. Not only does Airtel act as a one-stop shop for providing the end-to-end smart metering solution, but we have also been building capabilities to bring deployment efficiencies for our customers. For instance, Airtel has developed tools customized for large-scale implementations, such as the ability to do deployment feasibility from the platform, which helps our customers save critical resources by avoiding expensive field surveys. Lastly, we have built analytics tools that enable our customers to effectively track and monitor their communications uptimes and SLAs.

How do you view the adoption of smart metering in the power sector going forward? 

Our view is that the smart metering program will come through. There is a determined policy push and stakeholder buy-in for the initiative at all levels. Smart meters don’t solve all the problems of state utilities, but they are a significant first step toward better financial health. It is a three-step journey.

The first step is to get smart meters in 250 million homes. That is the starting point of the digitization of India’s power sector and the establishment of a pan-India smart grid. Once the 250 million meters come through, we will see the demand-supply mismatch ease up at the consumer end. This will ease up the load on the grid, and generation companies will be able to produce/ supply the grid accurately as per demand. The third step is the democratization of consumption with initiatives such as Time-of-Day pricing, resulting in better offtake of renewable energy.

There is no denying that there are challenges around deployment speed, availability of pervasive networks, and consumer adoption, but everyone has an incentive to implement these things faster. With the kind of investment that is coming into the sector, we should see the momentum pick up sooner rather than later.

There are several states where smart meters have yet to be pressed into service. Apart from private DISCOMs, have any state-owned utilities shown interest in Airtel’s smart metering solutions?

Smart meter rollouts have begun in earnest. As things stand today, more than 220 million smart meters have been sanctioned across the country. However, deployment progress remains relatively slow, with only 8.5 million smart meters being made live. The smart meter installation process is not easy, as the tendering process takes time, applications need to get deployed and co-exist with the legacy system, systems are integrated with billing software, and then there is work fieldwork around the actual replacement of conventional meters.

While private DISCOMs were early adopters of smart meter solutions, the introduction of RDSS and the mandates from the Ministry of Power have transformed the complete landscape. Several state utilities are now deploying at a breakneck speed. Airtel has been working with AMISPs (advanced metering infrastructure service providers) across Bihar, Punjab, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh for the deployment of these meters. 2024 is expected to be a watershed year for smart metering, with deployments happening across nearly all states.

What should the government do on the policy side to increase the adoption of smart meters by utilities?

I think that over the past ten years, the government has taken significant measures to improve the financial health of the DISCOMs to ensure India’s energy security.

While all these initiatives are visionary, successful adoption and timely implementation will be imperative. This requires a tremendous push on account of consumer education and awareness, which will need to be a joint responsibility of both the government and the DISCOMs.