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Britain's 'Smart Meter' Project Delayed

Utilities and firms looking to build new smart communications networks say they need at least another year to prepare.

The U.K. has pushed back the deadline for its ambitious national "smart meter" program, a plan to replace over 53 million gas and electricity meters with new devices via visits to 30 million British homes and small businesses.

Late last week the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced, "The consistent message [from bidders for smart meter data and communications service provider contracts] was that more time was needed if the mass rollout was to get off to the best possible start. We therefore expect suppliers to be ready to start their full scale roll-out by autumn 2015."

According to the timeline published last December, a mass rollout of smart meters was to start in late 2014 and finish in 2019. That end date is now 2020, according to the revised deadline.

The project, which some have estimated may end up costing as much as £11 billion ($17 billion), is intended to deploy enough equipment to support a real-time two-way flow of electricity and information between customers and suppliers.

[ For more on the U.K.'s Smart Meter plan, see U.K. Smart Meter Plan For 2014 In Disarray? ]

According to the government, the new system should better inform the level of supply needed to meet demand in a near-instantaneous fashion. The program is being held as a key deliverable in the state's commitment to meet its carbon emission targets.

London-based analyst group Ovum calls the plan's delay "pragmatic," describing it as the best way to avoid the real possibility that Britain could have commissioned a communications network for over 50 million meters that had not been properly tested. Ovum's principal energy and sustainability technology analyst Stuart Ravens explained, "Giving retailers responsibility for the smart meter rollout created some unique issues. In all other deployments worldwide, metering is the responsibility of network operators, not retailers, so each network operator is responsible for discrete geographic areas and able to select the right communications technology for its area. In practice, this is usually a hybrid of different communications."

In Britain's case, Ravens added, retailers have no geographic constraints, nor have they historically shown much interest in trialing and testing a variety of communications technologies. With very few exceptions, the smart meters deployed in Britain so far have relied on cellular-based communications, with "mixed results."

Part of the Department's tendering process was to request proof that each communications technology would work in the British deployment. However, the Department failed to commission any trials, which could have resulted in a national smart meter communications network that had not been properly tested prior to being initiated.

"The [Department's] decision to delay the tendering process by at least a year to perform more tests is welcome," Ravens said, "but it does beg the question: why did it take the [government] so long to recognize its previous folly?"

For its part, the government states that it will provide an "updated high level view of the smart meters delivery plan" later in 2013.

Urban transformation requires IT innovation. Here's how five U.S. cities are forging ahead. Also in the new, all-digital Future Cities issue of InformationWeek Government: Video surveillance provided valuable clues to the Boston Marathon bombings, serving as a lesson to other cities. (Free registration required.)

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