Don’t think for one minute that CSPs have billing and, more particularly, ‘bill shock’ issues all to themselves. The move to ‘smart metering’ for some utility companies in the USA is proving to be a minefield.

According to Wikipedia, a smart meter is an advanced meter (usually an electrical meter) that identifies consumption in more detail than a conventional meter; and optionally, but generally, communicates that information via some network back to the local utility for monitoring and billing purposes (telemetering).

Utility companies are selling the virtues of smart meters as cost saving devices that can monitor energy usage in each household, utilize lower cost off-peak periods and warn the occupant of excessive usage and even limit energy delivery to avoid blackouts at times of extreme usage. (Nobody seems to mention the demise of the ‘meter reader’ that used to ply our streets and the costs savings achieved as he disappears.)  In theory, as more and more appliances are fitted with their own communications chips and IP address it should be possible to monitor energy usage of individual units in the household.

However, as California based Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) has discovered, you need to get things right the first time or face the wrath of customers and regulators. When PG&E started rolling smart electricity meters in San Francisco they had a surge in complaints from customers reporting their bills had increased dramatically and inexplicably. It wasn’t just one or two, but tens of thousands.

Some customers were told that the increases were due to the fact that the previous meters were inaccurate and that the new smart meters were recording everything more accurately! Despite protest meetings held by disgruntled consumers and an investigation by a CBS TV affiliate, PG&E resolutely held firm even when it was discovered that some meters had been installed incorrectly.

But it now appears the gig is up as San Francisco’s City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, has asked state regulators to stop Pacific Gas and Electric Co. from continuing to install its controversial SmartMeters pending the completion of an official inquiry into the meters’ accuracy.

“Common sense should argue against installing millions of defective SmartMeters until their problems are fixed, and questions about their accuracy are fully resolved,” Herrera said in a news release. “Unfortunately, when a company lacks common sense, it means regulators need to do their job to protect the public interest.”

What may be an even bigger concern for smart meter rollouts worldwide is the growing number of reports regarding their overall security. InGuardians, a security consulting company, was hired by three utilities to test the vulnerability of smart meters from five manufacturers and the systems used to manage them.

The results were that smart meters, which create a network link between customers and utilities, have a number of potential vulnerabilities that could lead to scenarios such as a third party remotely turning someone’s power on or off.

This is like a case of ‘deja vu’ if you’ve been working in communications for even a short period. One has to wonder if utilities companies are naive or have simply turned a blind eye to all the same issues that have beset our industry for years. Either way, it seems that utilities certainly know how to deliver energy and water, but we know all about comms. Maybe we should be working more closely together as we strive to develop ‘smart pipes’ and they, ‘smart grids’.