The global smart metering market continues to grow. In 2021, it was worth nearly $20 billion and Blue Weave Consulting projects it to grow to well over $34 billion by 2028, a growth rate of 8.4%. The impetus for this significant development is due to several factors: from the increase in energy consumption to the proliferation of initiatives by public institutions, which are increasingly supportive, for political and social reasons, of the deployment of smart meters.
The benefits of adopting smart metering are undeniable and affect both businesses and end-users:
- By monitoring energy consumption in real time, smart metering provides end-users with detailed information about their consumption and empowers them to make more informed decisions about how to manage their utility to achieve better and more efficient service.
- Corresponding to this consumer empowerment, on the business side, is the ability to more quickly identify potential problems (from inefficiencies caused by malfunctions on the network to delays in payments) and to learn more about customers (from consumption habits to preferred modes of interaction). In general, with 5G supporting machine learning applications, companies are now able to analyze the vast amounts of data generated by sensors and smart meters in even more advanced ways. The results of these analyses are used to identify patterns and trends and extract insights useful for making better network management decisions, with a view to progressively reducing waste.
Not only that. The smart grid ecosystem, of which smart metering is a core component, has redefined the possibilities for communication between stakeholders (companies and consumers), establishing itself as one of the most innovative technological trends at work in the industry today.
The significance of this paradigm shift is clear: the way aUtility sectorcompany communicates with its customers has an impact that goes beyond mere support and affects everything from call centers to network management.
We’ll return to how smart metering improves communication in a strategic market such as energy and utilities shortly. But now, let’s pause and try to explain how smart metering works and look at the key differences between traditional meters and smart meters.
How smart metering works
A smart meter is a device that measures consumption and communicates this information to the supplier of the consumed resource. The main components of a smart meter include a metering device, a communication device, and a display device. The metering device records consumption and transmits the obtained data to the communication device, which transfers it to the supplier. The display device allows both real time consumption and consumption history to be shown to the user.
Smart meters have revolutionized the way we use energy and are fast replacing traditional meters.
Smart metering and traditional meters: the main differences
In a smart metering system, meters (which can record heat, cooling, water, gas, and electricity) collect consumption data and transmit it via radio frequency networks. These networks, as opposed to powerline technology, enable wireless communication and are a key component in the automatic reading of the meters themselves. Specifically:
- The medium used by powerline technology (Power Line Communication or PLC, in Italian powerline waves) is the power supply network. In this case, the transmission of voice or data is accomplished by superimposing a higher frequency signal on the transport of electric current, either direct or alternating, that is modulated according to the information to be transmitted. The two types of current are separated by a system of “filtering” the intervals of the frequencies used.
- In the case of smart metering, a radio frequency network that enables wireless transmission is used to remotely collect data from meters. Using communication that is actually two-way, the network can connect different types of meters, developed by different companies, to each other.
The technique has been used for decades by Utility companies until the introduction of mobile telephony.
The advantages of mobile telephony
Mobile telephony, on which the radio frequency infrastructure for wireless transmission relies, is a type of access to a telephone network that is made by radio waves. Mobile telephony is private. It is, at least in theory, owned by the end user. In reality, it’s a service that the owner of the access or whoever manages it reserves for the end-user against some form of payment or subscription.
Mobile radio communication is capable of serving entire geographic areas on a continuous basis, even in the case of “mobile” users, precisely, and in this sense it contrasts with fixed telephony.
Thanks to mobile telephony, and in particular radio frequency networks that transmit wirelessly, Utility customers can be connected to smart grid systems even in the densest urban environments, while at the same time retaining the ability to communicate with more traditional network systems, whether fiber optic or consisting of cellular telecommunication towers.
So far we have tried to shed some light on the way smart metering works. Now, we’ll quickly take a look at the areas where its contribution is particularly relevant.
The most relevant application areas of smart metering
There are many areas of application for smart metering and they cover the various services included in the term “multi-utility.” Below we have indicated those that seem the most interesting both today and in the future:
- Revenue protection. The frequency and accuracy with which smart metering produces data ensures an up-to-date billing base and allows utilities to be in full control of their revenues. For example, companies can see whether end-user consumption is developing as expected and can detect fraud early and identify other irregularities. In addition, more frequent data enables continuous meter surveillance and ensures faster intervention and immediate detection and correction of errors (e.g., of a broken temperature sensor).
- Identification of leaks. By combining real-time data provided by the end user with information from strategic locations in the overall distribution network, utilities can quickly identify leaks (heat, gas, water). In strategic parts of the network, smart meters can also be integrated with other measurements so as to provide even more detailed information about the state of the network.
- Management of peak demand. To remain competitive and optimally manage production, it’s necessary to be able to reduce peak demand when necessary. Smart meters can be used to limit the output of a system (e.g., heating), forcing the end user to model his or her own peak demand independently.
- Improved customer service. Smart meters promote a more proactive dialogue with end users. This is because Utilities, which have access to a real-time overview of their consumption habits, can show the consequences of inefficient energy behavior and provide data-driven recommendations to optimize it. A smart meter encourages better energy habits, can make users more aware and attentive, and help them reduce their carbon footprint (“carbon footprint”).
- Greater end-user involvement. Thanks to smart metering, there will no longer be a need for external readings: the smart meter, which shows consumption in real time, will automatically send the data to the supplier (at a lower cost because it doesn’t have to send anyone out in the field). Readings will also be much more accurate and the risk of estimated charges will be exponentially reduced. With real-time data, companies are able to offer end users a wide range of additional services and more flexible billing schemes through which they can help them achieve a more energy-efficient supply.
If we dwell on these last two areas of application we can see what distinguishes smart metering from traditional meters: in addition to the technology used, of course, there is a greater focus on sustainability and, above all, the possibility of achieving fully two-way communication.
How smart metering changes customer communication
Companies that have learned to govern digital transformation have capitalized on a status shift, one that transformed customers from essentially passive actors to stakeholders who can fully participate in the relationship with the brand. They can now leverage the activities that these “new users” perform on their own at different touchpoints in the funnel to gather valuable information about their preferences and consumption habits. In this way, users become almost “trusted advisors” whose input can prove essential in defining more centered business proposals and interaction patterns.
A new, more balanced mode of exchange
In the interconnected environment in which we live today, where the brand-customer relationship only works if a balance is reached between the parties, a loyalty process can be successfully nurtured when the exchange is mutually beneficial.
Similarly, smart metering can help save money and set up a more conscious and sustainable type of consumption only if end-users have the tools at their disposal to understand the flow of information to which they have access. This is the case only if the service provider has been able to structure a system of messages and content around smart metering that meets the information and educational needs of its users. For this reason, it becomes even more important to combine the implementation of a state-of-the-art smart metering system with the development of timely, transparent, personalized, and interactive communication. Today, there are many ways that this goal can be achieved; we will point out two that are particularly effective.
The interactive bill: how a video redesigns the Utility’s processes
A particularly interesting application of smart metering is to incorporate it into a more extensive system of personalized digital interaction that reaches the end user in the form of the interactive utility bill. The bill, in the digital form of a personalized and interactive video goes beyond the idea of the digital format and the classic PDF and redesigns some core processes of the utility world: from issuing the bill to its payment, from the communication of the customer situation to the sending of reminders. In this way, the personalized video becomes part of a new multimedia approach to “institutional” communications, hitherto perceived as distant, impersonal, and annoying.
In personalized videos, the integration of consumption data with billing data or from corporate databases or even related to payments, statements, and contracts is used to enrich the dialog with the customer and consequently to optimize profiling activities.
Smart metering and Customer Communication Management: the customer at the center of communication strategies
By integrating the incoming knowledge flow from smart metering into Customer Communications Management (CCM) solutions, it becomes immediately possible to introduce personalization and multichannel into business strategy, equipping customer service specialists with the tools needed to enrich one-to-one communications:
- applications to open a technical support ticket, create, and distribute billing documents, and send a closeout notification (each content can also be supplemented with additional text, master and personal data, submission of bids, and financial evaluations);
- a customizable web portal with a wide choice of templates and configurable forms that are suitable for any customer communication.
The idea behind this synergy is to revolutionize Utility sector communication by putting the customer at the center. Consumption data is processed, interpreted, and used by companies to optimize document production and distribution processes, and to dematerialize processes related to billing and storage. Every transactional document is thus transformed into a formidable tool for developing customer relationships: from acquisition to renewal of supply contracts, every communication is an opportunity to gain their trust and maintain their interest.
The point is that paper communications have become obsolete and are increasingly giving way to dynamic, interactive, digital content. In this scenario, even in the case of utilities, it becomes crucial to have a single point of contact to help with the transition to digital.