The new dumb smart meter model from PG&E

Just as the battle was starting up again for wireless dominance within the smart meter industry, Californian utility Pacific Gas & Energy (PG&E) may have come up with the ultimate answer – don’t turn on the radio in the meter.  It’s one of those cunning plans which will have the various standards body queuing up to make sure they’re responsible for the chip which is never connected.

This bizarre situation arises from the decision back in March this year, when PG&E worked out what to do with their electro-sensitive customers who were demanding that they weren’t radiated with emissions emanating from their smart meters.  PG&E put forward a proposal to make customers pay for non-smart meters, charging somewhere between $135 and $270 a year for the privilege of having a good old-fashioned meter reader come round and leave them a note to say they were out when he called.  The double whammy benefit that none of the media appeared to pick up is that the $270 charge would eat into these user’s mobile phone bill, so they’d have less money to spend on getting radiated by phoning their local papers to campaign against smart meters.  More affluent customers could have the gold plated option of paying several thousand dollars to have their meters moved to the top of local telegraph poles, or buried underground.

PG&E reckoned that this option would be taken up by 185,400 customers.  (I don’t know how they got to that precise figure. Although by a strange coincidence, 1854 is the year that Texas was connected by telegraph to the rest of the US, putting in place the telecoms network that Enron would use so effectively 150 years later.)  Anyway, this number presented PG&E with a problem.  185,400 is not a lot in terms of commissioning a special non-wireless meter.  So they were faced with the prospect of having to pay more for a non-smart meter, wiping out a substantial part of that $50 million annual windfall from their more sensitive customers.  Today they announced a solution – they’d supply the same wireless smart meter, but turn the radio off.  Enter the wirelessless meter.

Over the past few years there have been a number of rumours about smart meters being shipped with the radio disconnected.  That was because they’d been specified to include a radio, but no-one had ever intended to connect it, because it was way before the standards had been completed and it would probably not have worked.  But because it was on the procurement tick-list, the chips were fitted, but never turned on.  I’m not sure whether these stories are apocryphal – they covered several different wireless standards and allegedly several million meters, but PG&E’s decision means that they’re going to be true in the future.

For the different standards and chip companies supporting them, this opens up a fascinating new market opportunity.  Instead of competing to claim they have the best implementation of the standard, they now have the chance to compete on the basis that they are less effective than any other standard.  It doesn’t matter what your range is (unless it’s zero, which is now very good), what profiles you support, or even how power efficient you are.  All that matters is that you can keep quiet.  It does raise the interesting question of whether you need to go through a radio certification for a device that will never turn on, but I’m sure that the test houses will claim you do.  After all, they’ve got a living to make as well.

What we don’t know is whether these chips will be turned off in such a way that they can be turned back on.  So if a house is sold, can the new radio be turned back on.  And if so, how can it be done?  And I’m sure our PG&E’s wireless-shy community will want to know that it can’t happen accidentally and fry them in their sleep.

One important thing PG&E haven’t told us is whether these radios will need to be upgradable to support a future IPv6 based network which also doesn’t transmit.  I’m sure NIST will have a view on that, so maybe we can expect a new PAP group to consider disconnected radios.

You can’t really blame PG&E for opening up an Alice in Wonderland debate on dumb smart meters.  They’re trying to find a pragmatic solution in the face of wireless deniers.  But it does highlight the ever increasing complexity of the hoops that the smart metering industry is having to jump through.  All of which sucks up effort from the more important task of making the roll-out effective.

Is that a white rabbit I just saw jump out of my meter?