Some smart meters won't be smart at all once 2/3G networks mothballed

UK reckoning with prospect of millions of homes with obsolete hardware

Months after being quizzed by a committee of cross-party MPs, the UK government is still failing to clarify ways to support the substitution of millions of smart meters that will become obsolete when 2G and 3G networks are switched off.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reviewed the rollout of smart meters, a project beset with multiple delays since its inception in 2012, and published a damning report in October. It asked serious questions about the ramifications of aging mobile networks being switched off with some smart meters losing functionality.

Jeremy Pocklington, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), this week responded to the PAC but didn't offer any sort of timetable for replacing devices, as had been heavily recommended.

Nor did the senior civil servant inform of any measures the government is taking to pressure smart meter suppliers to put greater importance on exchanging the approximately 3 million smart meters installed that are either already faulty or not working properly – even before the 2G and 3G network switch-off.

Pocklington addressed the PAC recommendations to set out measures ensuring the newer installations are future-proofed. "The department continues to work on future-proofing the smart metering technology," he said.

A year ago, the National Audit Office said 57 percent of homes and businesses across Britain had smart meters installed – or 32.4 million out of a total available base of 57.1 million targets. It estimated that 9 percent weren't working.

In the PAC's October report on smart meters, it said: "A fifth more (an estimated seven million) will lose functionality when the 2G and 3G mobile communications networks are closed if they do not receive costly hardware upgrades (the cost of which will ultimately be borne by the billpayers)."

Pocklington wrote this week: "At the earliest stages of the Smart Metering Implementation Programme, we designed technology evolution into the system architecture by ensuring that all smart meters and comms hubs are remotely firmware upgradable and defining technical standards based on business requirements rather than specific technologies."

He said the technical specifications of smart meters had been "enhanced many times over the life of the programme." The department, Pocklington added, is "working" on the "longer-term technology strategy" with the Data Communications Company, a subsidiary of Capita that is responsible for overseeing the smart meter infrastructure and rollout.

"This includes assessing communications options for and beyond the 2030s, and considering whether newer technologies could enable us to continue to reduce the number of customers who are unable to have smart meters (in areas where there is currently no Wide Area Network access)."

The reality is that millions of smart meters contain a SIM card that connects to 2G and 3G wireless networks, and second-generation devices will be able to upgrade and connect to 4G with provision of a new SIM from 2025.

A Department for Energy Security and Net Zero spokesperson told The Reg: "Energy suppliers are obliged to upgrade communications equipment to ensure smart meters continue to be connected, and we are working with industry to support a smooth transition for consumers when 2G and 3G is switched off at the end of 2033."

An analyst source told The Register: "The UK deployed a mix of technologies, based on coverage and cost, and some of them were certainly 2G and 3G. I believe the idea was to have a removable module which can be snapped out and replaced, so upgrading will require an engineer's visit but should only take a couple of minutes. That's still a significant expense, but the alternative is a return to sending round humans to read the meter (or asking customers to do it themselves)."

Pocklington has only been in post since February last year so can't be held responsible for the delays to the programme. When it launched in 2012, the government put the legal onus on energy suppliers to complete the rollout by 2019. That deadline was pushed to the close of 2020, then 2024, and finally 2025.

Mobile operators do not plan on providing 2G and 3G mobile networks past 2033, regulator Ofcom said in September last year, so there's plenty of time for DESNZ and Capita to find a solution. Phew. ®

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