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SVP launches free citywide wi-fi access, moves forward with advanced metering system

April 16, 2013

By Fallon Forbush
Communications Assistant
Silicon Valley Power customers in Santa Clara, Calif., are beginning to reap the benefits of their energy provider’s decision to switch over to advanced-metering systems with the launch of free citywide wi-fi access as part of SVP’s MeterConnect program. 

This makes Santa Clara the first city in the country to provide free outdoor wi-fi access for an entire community as part of an advanced electric meter upgrade program that uses wireless technology to read meters, the utility said.

"Advanced metering may have been the starting point for building this infrastructure, but to date, we have only installed about 200 meters for testing," said Larry Owens, manager of customer services for SVP.

The utility has been planning the upgrade for years, weighing the costs and benefits, Owens said. "We were trying to build our cost-benefit analysis to try and find the real value of moving to advanced meters and, frankly, the value proposition of just installing advanced meters was a difficult sell."

When the utility pursued the idea of building a robust wireless, wide-area network across the whole city, "We said, ‘Bingo, this is our value proposition for moving forward,’" said Owens. "It was very clear that customers were excited to some degree about the benefits of seeing their energy use as they used it from day-to-day ... but the thing that rose to the top was this free outdoor wi-fi access as a benefit."

Advanced meters are being installed at commercial customer sites now. Residential deployment will begin later in 2013. The meters and data collection systems will use the SVP MeterConnect wireless equipment to securely backhaul meter data to the utility via an encrypted channel. The same wireless system carries a separate channel for the free, public and outdoor Internet service, which is unencrypted.

Shortly before a public announcement of the complimentary wi-fi, SVP experienced approximately 3,000 unique connections to the system in a 24-hour period and expects that number to climb to more than 5,000 connections a day.

In a video posted by the utility, Gary O’Connell, senior electric meter technician for SVP, talks about the benefits electricity customers will receive from all facets of the project.

SVP has learned from the experiences of other utilities that used federal grants to help pay for advanced metering programs a couple of years ago, said Owens. SVP did not receive federal funding for its project. 

"We’re actually in some ways relieved because we’ve seen other utilities that received stimulus funding have tight timelines and have to move quickly," said Owens. Neighboring Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) "moved in some cases ahead of their ability to communicate effectively with their customers," he said. "They were driven by timelines set by the stimulus funds and the federal government, rather than timelines set by the comfort of their customer base."  

"Our customers had the opportunity to read all about smart meters and probably some of the most negative press that we’ve seen across the country," Owens said of PG&E’s smart meter rollout.

PG&E installed smart meters in Bakersfield, Calif., just before a heat wave hit, which drove bills up, said Owens. There was also a simultaneous rate increase. 

"Instead of being able to dissect the information about what the potential causes of the high bills were, they [PG&E customers] just saw a new meter go into their home and the next month their bills were high," said Owens. "At that time, we realized that we needed to take this slow. We needed to educate our customers frequently about what are plans are, and specifically how we’re going to be different than PG&E." 

The utility had to build trust. "What PG&E suffered was an erosion of trust in their process because of their less-than-active communication and education effort," said Owens.

SVP has surveyed its customers and found that 65 percent thought the upgrade was a good idea, said Owens. However, its customers expressed a common concern about advanced-meter billing accuracy.

While the utility is looking to install meters by the end of this year, it is dependent upon the successful integration of data management systems that are necessary to ensure timely and accurate billing.

The utility has a meter reading system application, a meter data management application and a billing system application. "All three of those have to be integrated together in order to provide end-to-end data handling and billing," said Owens. "We will be complete with that by the end of summer and then move to install meters."

Along with accuracy and education, security is high on SVP’s priority list, said Owens. 

Before the advanced meters send data, the information is encrypted and then passed back to a concentrator where it is then loaded onto the wi-fi and encrypted again, said Owens. The data is not exposed until it is well behind the utility’s firewalls. The data has no personal information, only a meter number and the information from the meter. 

"All steps along the way, we’ve worked to limit the amount of data we collect and associate with that particular meter or that particular residence and then it’s doubly encrypted all the way back to the back office," said Owens. 
Privacy is also imperative to a successful transition, the utility said.

"We have a long history in honoring data privacy," said Owens. "It is in our culture, so we take steps in particular to talk internally about privacy and data privacy and what it means to our customers. Our culture of privacy has guided us throughout this process."


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