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Summary:

Smart meter systems, like cellphone networks, transmit and crunch a lot of real-time customer data, and customers don’t particularly like it when their bills don’t come out right. But tools that phone companies use to make sure bills are accurate can also help utilities.

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Smart meter systems, like cellphone networks, transmit and crunch a lot of real-time customer data, and customers don’t particularly like it when their bills don’t come out right. Can tools that phone companies use to make sure bills are accurate and in real time, end up helping utilities? That’s the idea behind a partnership between Convergys, maker of software that helps telecom and cable companies manage customer data data, and smart meter data specialist eMeter.

The two companies have teamed up to help utilities with this looming customer billing issue, and said this week that they’ll partner on helping utilities bring their legacy, batch-based billing and customer care systems up to speed, while “reducing any potential risks which may arise during deployment” of smart meters or other smart grid systems.

That sounds like just the kind of help utility Pacific Gas & Electric could have used in its multi-million smart meter deployment. The utility has faced a customer backlash over its smart meters, and while a report found that the technology worked, it also dinged the utility for not using it to collect data and inform its customers about smart meter installations.

Convergys’s “relationship management” software is in place for a host of big telecommunications and cable customers already, and it’s also developed a version of software specifically for utilities. It landed a big customer, Duke Energy, in September 2009. As for eMeter, the startup has utility clients including Texas-based CenterPoint, Toronto Hydro Electric System, Bluebonnet, and Vattenfall in Sweden and Finland, along with many others, and raised $12.5 million in venture capital in July.

Utilities will definitely face challenges in bringing close to real-time data to customers. While many smart meter networks can theoretically deliver data in as little as 15 minute increments, almost all utility back-office billing IT is done in batch processing style. Replacing that will take a big investment in IT upgrades, or a change to new models of utility customer pricing.

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  1. Great stuff Katie. From a consumer perspective, agree that real or near real time billing will be one of the early indicators that the Smart Grid is arriving. It’ll be good bye and good riddance to a big batch of batch machines, and I don’t think too many folks will shed tears over that.

  2. In addition to the basic requirements of billing accuracy and real time processing, a billing system must also enable new business models that utilities and regulatory bodies would like to deploy today and in the future. As a bi-directional network, smart grid is ideally positioned to enable new business model innovation to better balance supply and demand, improve energy efficiency, integrate renewable and increase customer engagement. It is somewhat short-sighted to copy telecom billing model, which by itself has significantly limited the innovations for telecom and cable operators, as it would inherit a large number of limitations telecom carriers want to rid themselves of in the first place. Do you really want your utilities in the future to be like your telecom carriers and cable operators?

  3. Thanks, Andy and Jian — and it’s Jeff writing, not Katie… ;-) Have you all seen any other partnerships or deployments that illustrate this trend?

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