British Gas is to deploy meters with embedded mobile phones, and Zigbee networking, to ensure we know how much electricity we're using, and they do too.
The smart meters use Vodafone's 2G network to send back readings and allow British Gas to see exact levels of 'leccy consumption at any time, while the Zigbee connectivity pushes the same information to a touch-screen display we can use to set our own targets for saving energy and see how much our solar cells are contributing.
Unlike clip-on systems, which estimate how much energy is flowing but can be fitted to any supply by wrapping them around the incoming cable, the new system requires a replacement meter – but that's rather the point as this is all part of the industry's push for greater control over our electricity consumption.
Both the "pebble" display and the meter itself can have their software updated remotely, and the use of Zigbee means that instructions could be sent to (for example) a Zigbee-enabled freezer or washing machine, to reduce consumption at short notice or run when there's surplus power available in the grid.
But that's for the future: today it is just about getting the remotely readable meters into homes, which will apparently start next month, and letting people know how much energy they're using on a minute-by-minute basis.
Mobile networks aren't ideal for such things, as the White Space crowd keep reminding us. GPRS has a massive communications overhead, and connectivity won't stretch into every basement meter, not to mention the low priority attributed to data traffic. Mobile-data kit around Heathrow stopped working during last winter's snow troubles as travellers called home and knocked M2M communications off the network, for a few days.
But White Space technology isn't available yet, and with the government is committed to getting smart meters into every home by 2019, the cellular operators are the only ones able to provide blanket coverage today - even if the blanket is a little moth-eaten. ®