There’s a dirty secret in the utility metering world: most smart meter communications networks are single-use, expensive, and proprietary. This outdated networking approach is leading to vendor lock-in for utilities that reduces choice and cost-effectiveness, and to reduced meter functionality through unnecessarily slow data transfer speeds. The good news is that a modern AMx strategy can help to avoid these problems.


Proprietary networks are prolific

Why are proprietary networks still used? The main reason is the continued use of network interface cards (NICs), which are physical chips that connect a single meter to a single network. In theory, this approach provides a physical mechanism for interoperability (since the NICs could be swapped out to connect a given meter to a different network). In practice, however, this approach makes it hard for utilities to adopt mixed meter portfolios (across types, vintages, or vendors), limits the ability to converge infrastructure by using existing broadband networks, and makes it harder to get high-speed data backhauls that would help enable better customer engagement and unlock new utility use cases through real-time data and insights.

The current paradigm is also much more expensive than necessary, since utilities have to pay to set up and maintain a full communication network across their service territory (rather than using alternative approaches like existing multi-purpose broadband networks), and since they may have to spend more to get new transponders or NICs if they want to install new meter types. And since infrastructure upgrades are often rate-based, higher metering costs tend to lead directly to higher customer bills as well.


Stories from the field

Proprietary networks and a lack of true meter interoperability are causing real headaches for utilities across the US. In recent conversations we’ve had with utilities (anonymized below to respect confidentiality), we’ve heard about:

  • A dual-fuel utility that upgraded electric meters based on their interoperability with gas meters, upgraded their network, and then ran into supply chain challenges getting gas communication modules and suddenly faced a precarious situation where they worried they may not be able to access gas meter data.
  • A utility that deployed a new network in preparation for a full AMI rollout just before the vendor it was working with released newer, improved meter hardware. Because the network the utility had just deployed was now immediately outdated, the utility was effectively locked out of upgrading to the new hardware that would have provided substantial additional benefits.
  • A utility that had developed strong customer engagement and grid operations practices with its drive-by (AMR) meters was forced by its regulator to begin upgrading to smart meters (AMI). Because the utility was unable to mix new and old meters on a single system, they had to invest in a massive comprehensive replacement project instead of being able to take a more incremental deployment approach to deliver new value at lower cost while having more time to identify best practices with the new technology.


What’s the answer?

The solution to the problems outlined above is to move away from classic networking frameworks towards a modern AMx model that uses converged infrastructure to transfer meter data over existing broadband networks and provide true interoperability between AMI and AMR meters across the electric, gas, and water systems. This kind of technology-agnostic approach removes platform compatibility as a differentiator, allowing meters to finally become competitively priced based on features offered and to be deployed incrementally as needed. At Copper, we’re excited to help utilities take their next steps towards an AMx metering future that reduces costs, increases flexibility and resiliency, and lets them more quickly realize the benefits of granular, timely data.