Maine’s Office of the Public Advocate, which sports an angry lobster clutching a cell phone as its website mascot, is troubled by the Wi-Fi interference issues that have been reported by customers with smart meters installed by Central Maine Power.
The issue, according to Public Advocate Richard Davies, is that the problem may be more widespread than the 250 customers who have called in to the utility. For most people, complaints have centered on interference with portable phones and Wi-Fi routers that operate on the same 2.4 GHz frequency band as the meters. The complaints are 0.055 percent of the approximately 450,000 customers that have received the new meters.
“For the most part, we can solve the problem over the phone,” said John Carroll, spokesman for Central Maine Power.
The utility has brought in a team of consultants with radio frequency interference backgrounds to answer questions for anyone calling in with the problem. CMP acknowledged that they had not anticipated the issue before the meters were put in place, and although the first few complaints came soon after the first 10,000 meter were put in place, it took a while to identify the cause of the problem.
Trilliant, which provides the communications platform for the meters, helped identify the problem, and then CMP brought in consultants. Usually, just moving the router or changing the channel on the portable phone can fix the problem. If that doesn’t work, CMP sends out a technician to fix the problem -- or the utility will pay for new equipment.
The public advocate said that it was worried that CMP wasn’t doing enough to let people know this could be an issue, although CMP said that it references interference issues on its pre-install notice and the door hanger that’s left after the meter goes in. There is also a page about the issue on the website. “We’re certainly upfront about it,” said Carroll. He also said they’ve found that it tends to be an issue with certain types of phones and routers.
For the small number of people having issues (even if it’s double the number of people who are calling in), the larger issue raised by Davies seems to be about education and awareness. Like all aspects of smart grid implementation, education and consumer interaction is key. A little anticipation of customer concerns could also go a long way. Although there is bound to be bumps in the road, they could be far less common if utilities proactively share their consumer issues amongst each other. Carroll said some other utilities had heard of this issue, as well.
Maine was also the first state to adopt an opt-out policy for smart meters. A few of the people who have had interference issues have chosen to opt out, but that figure is very small, said Carroll. About 200 of the interference cases have been settled.
For customers who want an analog meter, it’s $40 to have it installed and then $12 per month. For customers that want to keep the smart meter, but have the radio communications disabled, there is a $20 one-time fee and a monthly fee of $10.50.
Because the opt-out policy was implemented after Maine had put in hundreds of thousands of meters, the utility had to put together a campaign to reach out to everyone who already had a meter and see if they still wanted it. For those who haven’t received a meter yet, they are also mailed a card that lets them decide if they want their smart meter or choose another option that involves the extra fees.
Before the opting-out process started, about 8,000 customers expressed interest in the option to do so. Currently there is about a one-percent rate of opting out, with about 55 percent to 60 percent of those customers choosing the analog meter. If that pattern holds true through the full meter roll-out, which is expected to be finished in the first quarter of 2012, it would amount to about 6,200 customers.
However, even just a few months in, Carroll said that many customers have opted out of opting out. Once they see the extra $10 or $12 on their bills, about 10 percent of those who initially rejected the wireless-enabled smart meter decide that forgoing the technology is not worth the extra cost. (The average residential bill in CMP territory is about $82 per month.)
Although CMP has nearly a half-million meters in place, they are just releasing a beta version of their customer web portal starting later this year or early next year. “We hope that will raise customer acceptance,” said Carroll. Utilities that started their smart meter rollouts in past years have often delayed the accompanying web portals until all the meters were in.
But that has turned out to be a bad idea, as some utilities experienced customer backlash related to billing. In turn, some public utility commissions have responded to this by requiring that customer websites with smart meter data be available when the meters are installed. Baltimore Gas & Electric, for example, is required to have the web portal up and running as the meters go in.
The opt-out option in Maine, which is going to be duplicated in California, will likely show that there isn’t as much uproar over smart meters as some mainstream media reports would suggest -- at least not as long as turning off the meter means paying more.