British Gas – Smart Meters get real

Yesterday’s announcement by British Gas that they are about to deploy 2 million smart gas meters is probably the most important move that the smart energy market has seen.  There are two things that make it significant.

The first is the fact that British Gas understands data.  Back in 1995 they were the first corporation in the world to roll out GSM data connectivity to all of their service engineers.  They’ve kept on quietly pushing the leading edge of technology ever since.

The second is that they are a major player in a market that has been deregulated for many years.  They know that they need to persuade customers to stay with them and that those customers have a choice.

Both are skills that are markedly lacking in many of the other trials we have had around the world.  If anyone can prove that smart metering will work it’s probably going to be British Gas.  In a week where an Associated Press report poured scorn on the security of smart meters, and shortly after the PG&E billing fiasco, the industry needs some good, solid evidence of where smart metering really is.  Compared to this deployment, everything else may look like rank amateurism.  This will be the one to watch.

Today we take mobile data for granted.  In 1995 it was a novelty.  The GSM networks in Europe were just upgrading their networks from data rates of 2.4kbps to 9.6kbps, and if you wanted to use this you needed a PCMCIA data card to run the top end of the GSM data stack, with a lead connecting it to the mobile phone.  At the time, British Gas had the largest network of service engineers looking after customer’s boilers (furnaces) and had identified a number of problems with the way their service organisation worked.

There were two main issues.  As boilers became more complex, engineers could increasingly expect to turn up at a house to confront a boiler they’d not seen before.  Even where it was one they knew, in many cases they didn’t carry a spare part with them.  So they’d leave the householder with no heating and a promise that they’d phone back to make another appointment when they found out if there was a spare in stock.  It wasn’t a great user experience.

To solve it, British Gas took the radical step of supplying each service engineer with a rugged laptop with a GSM data connection.  The laptop had an expert system to help diagnose faults and data on all of the current boilers.  If they encountered a new one, they could check to see if data was available online, or use the mobile phone to call back to base.  (Incidentally, the concept of giving an engineer a mobile phone was pretty radical itself back in 1995).  Once they’d indentified the fault, they could check for spare parts online and book the next appointment with the customer before they left.  The customer satisfaction improved enormously.  The resulting deployment of just over 5,000 devices remained the largest single GSM data solution for most of that decade.

I recount the story as I designed the PCMCIA data card for this project.  At the time all of those involved in it considered what British Gas was doing to be the wild west frontier of GSM data technology, as it did things that no-one had done before for a commercial application.  It worked because of the level of detail that British gas put into the project to make it work.  Where problems arose, they dug down into the fine detail, even if that meant looking at component level issues within devices.

That’s what makes me so interested in this project.  British Gas has taken the brave step of publishing the full specifications for this deployment on their website.  They’re as detailed as anything I have seen and well worth reading.   It’s well thought through and not just jumping onto the latest technology bandwagon.  They’ve chosen to use ZigBee with the Smart Energy profile, although they don’t specify whether it’s v1.0 or v2.0.  More than anyone else, I expect them to put it through its paces and see how it stands up to volume deployment.  They also understand security and should be able to say whether that within their ZigBee implementation stands up to scrutiny, or whether something else is needed. That’s already recognised within their spec.  If my experience with GSM is anything to go by, it will be the first real test it gets and the industry needs to keep a close eye on it.

I also have confidence that they will do a much better job of billing than PG&E.  For many years, gas and electricity supply has been deregulated within the UK and utilities have had to learn how to win customers.  The various players have learnt a lot of lessons, not least because they’ve made some pretty horrendous mistakes over the years.  In 2003, British Gas was voted the worst company in the UK for dealing with customer’s complaints.  But they’ve learnt and had time to improve.  Perhaps not everything, but hopefully enough to avoid the basic mistakes that others have made.

I don’t expect it to be perfect.  But if the thoroughness of the specs can be replicated in the deployment, this promises to be the smart energy roll-out that tells us whether the promises of interoperability and timescale we keep being promised are real, or whether smart energy is just an opportunistic, grant grabbing industry that concentrating on nothing more than PR.