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back to article UK gov's smart meter dream unplugged: A 'colossal waste of cash'

On 23 June, the village of Alfriston in the South Downs hosted Get Wired, an event celebrating old-fashioned wired analogue power meters – or, more accurately, opposing their replacement by new wireless "smart" meters. Organiser Stop Smart Meters UK is worried about radiation, privacy, safety, higher bills and people losing …

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Re:@FatGerman

"I was starting to think you were talking sense, and then you went and did the energy supplier thing of calling climate change "claptrap", thus proving you're full of shit."

Well, my teutonic friend, I've studied the subjects at hand to graduate level, so I think I've got a valid degree of education to doubt the claptrap. But taking your moniker at face value, who's government is phasing out CO2 light nuclear in favour of gas and coal?

From my point of view that's common sense, from the point of view of AGW conformists, well.........

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Anonymous Coward

Re: FatGerman

"I've studied the subjects at hand to graduate level"

Even more worrying if you have done that and can still doubt the overwhelming observable evidence, and near universal scientific opinion on the subject. There simply isn't any reasonable doubt about climate change anymore. It is happening. The only remaining question is how much of it is due to us - and the answers seem to vary in a narrow band from all of it, to nearly all of it...

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Re: FatGerman

" There simply isn't any reasonable doubt about climate change anymore. It is happening. "

You should read what I have written more carefully before leaping in with your own opinions. When did I deny that climate change has and continues to happen? It always has changed, always will change. Just because (as per the Climategate emails) the high priests of this new religion seek to disparage, discourage and discredit those hold different views doesn't make them right. The targeted funding of research will inevitably find evidence in a complex system that matches what the funding issuers want to hear, particularly since fools seem to have already decided that the case is proven. If you think this is proven, then you're not much of a scientist, since your mind is not open to alternative theories. Maybe you've forgotten the mad, inaccurate plagiarism of the IPCC? If they can't be relied upon, who should we trust?

Let's park AGW for a moment, and look towards the longer term: Fossil fuels are not likely to be sufficient to power our societies. We therefore need alternatives, and renewables or fission/fusion technologies may have a part to play, along with making more efficient use of energy. But the short term, panicky Canute like response to Thermogeddon is not a sensible policy. Globally, emissions are higher because Europe has pushed industry offshore to less efficient and "dirtier" parts of the world. Society is poorer because of the unproductive investment in renewables - so we've spent £30bn in the UK on windmills, but because of the panic, that's been on immature technologies and rubbish assets - small generators, low hub heights, crummy onshore locations, primitive materials, unreliable and short lived hardware. If instead of that (which I'm taking from your tone you think is a grand thing) we'd replaced all UK coal with CCGT at a cost of £6bn then we'd have done far more to reduce emissions than our fleet of subsidy-harvesting windmills, we could have still spent £4bn on reasearch into energy storage, or advancing wind turbine performance and reliability, or fission & fusion, and still be £20bn richer as a nation. And from such a policy we'd have had lower emissions than we will do in the near future, and we'd have been able to make much more effective future investments in non-fossil technologies. Even if that was common or garden nuclear, the 3x cost over-runs on EPR show that either the underlying technology, or the basics of construction needed a lot more work before trying to build the things. Meanwhile, the UK government are desperate to bribe EdF to build an EPR at Hinckley Point, in order to meet their own spurious "climate" goals.

So my proposal is not based on burning coal forever. It isn't based on denying climate change. It simply involves looking at what you need to achieve, doing so efficiently, and not having panic-driven policies inspired by suspect theories and the European Calvinist guilt ethic.

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Alert

Re: Lets do maths

Each meter costs £265. There are 53 million households according to the article which need to be fitted. so the total is £265 x 53,000,000 = £14 Billion.

How much electricity is this going to save?

Lots. You and I, the energy consumers, are going to be paying for the meters, through higher electricirty prices. Those who are having trouble paying their bills, will have to cut back on something, and that something may well include electricity usage. Also it gives them the ability to cut off anyone who is in arrears with their bills far more easily. Also it gives them the ability to inflict a power cut on most of us, without the opprobium that goes with inflicting one on those for whom a power cut might be life-threatening.

Probably not the answer you wanted? What, me, a cynic?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: "graduate level"

LOL

You're not even approaching a minimal level of understanding required to make such general wide-sweeping observations about a controversial scientific subject.

I have seen the kind of work that people get awarded degrees and Master's degrees for. I have also seen some of your other posts.

Come back when you are an internationally-acclaimed professor.

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"bettering the appliances"

I for one welcome this betterification.

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FAIL

Re: "bettering the appliances"

Maybe, but if I'm working from home to save myself some gasoline/petrol (and because it's hotter 'n Hades here today), and some wank at The Power Company® decides to brown out my block to save power for the more uptown areas of my fair city, and that horks up my computer, I am not going to be a happy camper!

(And like the Incredible Hulk, you don't want to make me angry...you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. Just ask my co-workers...or my wife...)

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Bring them on....

I'm constantly forgetting to send in my meter readings and have had several occurances of being told that my meter has been read when it is quite clear that it hasn't (apparently "our meter reader took a reading but you weren't there" applies even if said meter is locked behind the front door!).

I'm also looking forward to being able to hook it up to my graphite server and start charting energy useage vs. outside temperature/time of day/other because I'm a geek and I like data analysis.

ID cards and the like are completely redundant as we already all have passports, NI Numbers and Tesco Clubcards, these meters strike me as actually being useful.

There are risks with everything and people that work in IT should be more aware of this than most. You are never secure when attached to a network, you just hope that the pople running the system at the other end know what they are doing...

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Re: Bring them on....

"There are risks with everything and people that work in IT should be more aware of this than most. You are never secure when attached to a network, you just hope that the pople running the system at the other end know what they are doing..."

Absolutely true, but a pipe dream. These meters are designed to sit on the wall for at least 10 and probably more like 20 years. Anyone who seriously thinks security can be maintained over that timespan is living elsewhere than mother earth. Yes, firmware etc. can be upgraded, but the hardware effectively can't be. And, unless they completely change tact, encryption needs more and more processor power as it gets more and more complicated, hence more secure. So, the chances of a 10 year old meter having the processor power top perform a secure level of encryption? Pretty slim I suspect. Even worse for 20 years.

And, bear in mind, we're trying to defend against nation states. Not just some spotty youngster in his bedroom. The meters must be able to withstand attacks from agencies with the resources of nations, say for arguments sake.....China. Likely? Don't think so.

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Re: Bring them on....

Is encryption really that processor intensive? Even in ten years time? A simple and cheap ARM core running at 500Mhz should be more than adequate I would have thought, for 10 years worth of software changes. After all, it's not like these things run in real time. You can afford to spend 30s encrypting something (and lets be honest, its not a huge amount of data, 30s should be more than enough) without affecting the overall performance of the system.

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Re: Bring them on....

@Mad Mike: These meters aren't going to be sending vast amounts of data, it's pretty easy to encrypt small amounts of data when you don't have to do it particularly quickly. Also, the encryption in cable TV and most Sat TV systems has remained uncracked for really quite a long time now.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Bring them on....

Also, the encryption of cable and satellite TV systems was cracked within weeks of rollout.

Fixed that for you.

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Re: Bring them on....

@james Hughes 1

Given the power budget they've been given for the processors....yes.

By the way, don't underestimate the amount of data being sent either. It's a lot more than you might expect. It's also being sent once a day only as well, rather than nice and evenly spaced.

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Re: Bring them on....

@AC.

TV encryption (as in Sat etc.) was broken (or got around) almost as soon as it was launched. Also, don't underestimate the amount of data being sent; it's more than you might think. Finally, you have to realise that the encryption will also be used for things like firmware upgrades etc., all of which have to be from assured sources. Have a look around the web at what these meters are supposed to be doing and you'll find it's a lot more than at first sight. Finally, check out the power budget they're giving for the processors as well. Even ARM processors are struggling to get under it!!

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Boffin

Re: Bring them on....

... encryption needs more and more processor power as it gets more and more complicated, hence more secure. So, the chances of a 10 year old meter having the processor power top perform a secure level of encryption? Pretty slim I suspect.

Any encryption can be broken, given enough time and computing power. Security depends on a balancing act between the value of the data being protected, the length of time it needs to be protected for, and the probable cost (to the attacker) of breaking the encryption within that time. If the attacker can't profit from the attack he probably won't be stupid enough to carry it out (H.L.Mencken notwithstanding).

What's the value (to an attacker) of the data each of these meters will be asked to encrypt?

I'd guess that something currently unadventurous like AES-128 will still be massively more expensive to break in ten or even twenty years time than the value of one household's electricity bill, so there really shouldn't be a problem.

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First Rule of Network Security

If you want something to be secure, don't put it on a network.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Bring them on....

It really wasn't. At least in the UK, with the current systems. I am not aware of a single person, even anecdotally, who has cracked Virgin or Sky.

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Re: Bring them on....

do a search then- El Reg is a good place to start - http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/16/vm_fraud/

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Re: Bring them on....

I don't have a passport as I don't travel more than 100 miles from the house.

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Boffin

@dajames Re: Bring them on....

I agree that brute-force cracking AES-128 is likely to remain too expensive to bother attacking an individual Smart Meter for at least a decade.

However, you're assuming there are no other points of attack.

There's only two ways to implement the security on smart meters:

1) Every meter has its own, individual key. This requires either a large backend database of SN:Key or an algorithm to generate a key from the meter serial number.

- So a miscreant attacks the database or keygen algorithm. This is a high-value target because once cracked, the miscreant has all the meters. The database is as secure as the weakest organisation with access to it.

2) Every meter has the same key (or there are a small number of keys). This key will be written down somewhere.

- So a miscreant only needs to find a copy of the key.

Both methods leave the system open to attack without even touching the meter - and assume that the implementation is perfect, which is highly unlikely.

You're right that if cracking these meters only gave you "free energy", it probably wouldn't be much of a target because there are easier (if more dangerous) ways to do this already - just bypass the meter. Yep, it's live working but you don't die too often.

However, cracking these meters gives you control over whether power is delivered at all. What would happen if a "terrorist group" decided to cut off a significant number of properties at the same time?

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Re: Bring them on....

(Disclaimer: I don't live in UK)

Yeah, biggest fun with getting a smart meter for me was that it has a blinking led, which is easy to interface with an arduino to log and plot power use. It was much harder to read the old spinning disc type meter.

As a result, when the inhabitants can see how much power the dish washer, washing machine and tumble dryer use, we've been much better at running them at night when the electricity is cheaper. The old myths about fridge and freezer being energy bandits have also been proven wrong.

As for the other issues, people here are mostly concerned about the smart meters' alarming tendency to spontaneously explode and charr the wallpaper. On the other hand, people are enthusiastic hoping they get a meter that just silently fails. It typically takes 2 or 3 months before the distribution company notices the meter is dead, so you get 2-3 months free power :)

It doubles as thunderstorm comfort, if you forget to unplug your computer when leaving the house, and you get a lightning strike somewhere within 3km of the 10km long aerial wire feeding your house, when weeeping over the charred remains of your computer, you can comfort yourself with that the meter probably also died, and you can enjoy free power for a few weeks :)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Bring them on....

"do a search then- El Reg is a good place to start - http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/09/16/vm_fraud/"

That was the old analog based system which was replaced a good few years ago. As far as I know Sky Digital and Virgin Media's digital solutions remain uncracked.

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The thing about household appliances is that they're typically built to last for some time. Sure, planned obsolescence exists to an extent, but the average homeowner expects things like refrigerators, washers, etc. to last for a decade or so at the least (my fridge is going on 20 and only the icemaker's broken). They won't replace the appliance until it breaks, which means if someone's only a few years into an otherwise-inefficient refrigerator, there may be a while before it's replaced with a more-efficient model.

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But the new models really aren't any more efficient than the old ones. There is some small improvement during operation but if you figure in the tremendous spike in idle energy use its pretty much a wash. It's fairly misleading on the part of the manufacturers. Why actually make things more efficient when you can just move the target around.

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@Charles 9

"(my fridge is going on 20 and only the icemaker's broken)."

I offer you a very sincere recommendation: Buy a good plug in energy monitor (that'll cope with power factor correction) and use it work out how much that fridge is using over a week or so. Maybe wait for weather to cool down a touch before doing this (otherwise you'll be reading very high use numbers that are not representative), and compare to the expected annual usage of a new fridge.

Older fridges and freezers are utter bastards for wasting energy, probably worse than any other appliance because they're always on. They were designed for an era of cheaper electricity, and there have been big improvements in the compressor efficiency and insulation over the past fifteen years. Moreover, as fridges age the hinges droop and the door seals harden, leading to continual heat loss. Maybe at low rates - still seems like the door seals - but its those continuous losses that have a big influence on the energy use. In some cases you can save the cost of the new fridge in reduced electricity costs over less than two years.

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Re: @Charles 9

Ledswinger is right about the fridge. I should have qualified my statement better.

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That's exactly as it should be ...

... if someone's only a few years into an otherwise-inefficient refrigerator, there may be a while before it's replaced with a more-efficient model.

The cost -- in both energy consumed and carbon dioxide (and other pollutants) produced -- of manufacturing a refrigerator is large compared with the cost of operating even a fairly inefficient one for some years. The cost of disposing of a 'fridge isn't trivial, either, as the refrigerant has to be recovered.

We should certainly not encourage people to replace good working kit just because there's something new that works very slightly more efficiently - that benefits nobody but refrigerator makers.

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I'm gonna need a bigger house

It plans to put 53 million smart meters into every home in England, Wales and Scotland by 2020 (Northern Ireland has its own policy).

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Coffee/keyboard

Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

Tea and keyboards don't mix

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Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

The text could have been written a bit better; but there is a real issue with the numbers.

"The total number of households in England increased by 7% from. 20.2 million in 1999 to 21.5 million in 2008–09."

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/6695/1750765.pdf

Scotland has about 4 million houses, so total of around 25 million? And they are talking about 53 million smart meters?

Going to be a very large pile of unsused meters methinks.

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Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

I guess they'll be poking the business community as well...

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Holmes

Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house@Magister

"Going to be a very large pile of unsused meters methinks."

No, the balance of those numbers is because gas meters are going to have to be replaced with smart meters as well. Which is unfortunate, because the fairly advanced trials of gas smart meters have established there's no reduction in demand even from the self-selected early adopters.

So we're replacing 23 odd million gas meters at a cost of about £6bn to save £138m a year in manual meter reading and call centre and billing costs for incorrect bills. That''s a 44 year cash payback. Unfortunately, bad as that is, when you include the cost of capital at 5%, then the £138m savings per year become a net cost of £163m a year.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

This is UK government we're talking about. Wouldn't suprise me to learn they've signed binding contracts (with eye-gouging penalty clauses) for the supply of 53 million meters. Compare with the Tamiflu clusterfuck.

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Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

"Wouldn't suprise me to learn they've signed binding contracts (with eye-gouging penalty clauses) for the supply of 53 million meters"

Your cynicism is well founded, but inaccurate. DECC have veerrryyyy slooowly developed a specification for all smart meters. But the actual contracts are signed energy supplier by energy supplier. For a large company with several million customers the loss of economy of scale (cf national purchasing) is more than offset by the commercial skills of the buyers. For smaller energy companies its more of a problem, but that's not my problem.

However, its not all sweetness and light. DECC's specification is so convoluted and market specific that these meters aren't the same as most European countries are using, so there's a cost to developing a new toy with a UK only specification. And we all know how good government and civil servants are at that sort of thing. Expect something bad to be discovered after they've all been installed.

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Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house@Magister

So we're replacing 23 odd million gas meters at a cost of about £6bn to save £138m a year in manual meter reading and call centre and billing costs for incorrect bills.

I'm old enough to remember when Labour policy was to squander obscene sums of OUR money on demented schemes to artificially create jobs and thus keep people in work. Now instead they squander obscene sums of OUR money on demented schemes to artificially destroy jobs and thus put people out of work? I think, if I had to choose between the two, I prefer the old policy.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

D'you think they'll let me put some of mine in the shed?

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Re: I'm gonna need a bigger house

Because each house will have two meters, one for gas and one for electricity = ~53,000,000.

These need to be installed for electricity rationing, complex tariffs, remote shutdown of 'smart' appliances during lean times and such like.

e.g. You will probably have to go onto a more expensive tariff to be allowed to use a dishwasher during the day, or when it's not windy, only your fridge and freezer will work and everything else will be blacklisted.

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SOP

A typical government project. It simultaneously:

1. Ignores the real problems (how are we going to generate enough power in the future? how can we expect industrial output to grow while energy usage shrinks? why would households not use heating and/or aircon when shops and government departments do?)

2. Makes the politicians "look busy". They're doing something, aren't they? (Even if we would all be better off if they didn't).

3. (The really important one) Puts a huge amount of business the way of industry - making, installing, and running kit that no one needs and that does no one any good. And that - ironically - will chew up lots of extra energy.

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Unhappy

Re: SOP @ Tom Welsh

"A typical government project. It simultaneously: 1. Ignores the real problems (how are we going to generate enough power in the future?...."

Well, you have to think like a DECC bureaucrat. And as with all Whitehall pension-harvesters, they're fighting the last war. In this case, the last war was that peaking plant was very expensive, and therefore if you could, reducing peak demand saved you bucketloads of cash that would otherwise have been squandered on expensive but rarely used thermal plant.

Unfortunately, with the advent of gas plant, power stations are now surprisingly cheap, say half a billion quid for a stonking great 2 GW CCGT. Rather than spending billions in a risky scheme to shave marginal points off the peak demand, they should just tell industry to build and operate what is required. Keep an eye open for new technologies that might help (eg storage), but certainly not spend £14bn on useless smart meters that will be obsolete before the roll out is complete. And it was a bad idea to spend £30bn on crappy wind power that just gets in the way of efficient running of gas plant, but that's another £30bn of value destroyed by incompetent government policies.

When can we march on Whitehall with our pitchforks, and stick some MP's and civil servants' heads on pikes?

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Re: SOP @ Ledswinger

"When can we march on Whitehall with our pitchforks, and stick some MP's and civil servants' heads on pikes?"

What are you doing next Saturday?

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Hack away

I read there is a booming black market in the US for hacking these "secure" smart meters. Its apparently quite easy to rig them and significantly lower your bills..

I can't see anybody doing that here!, not one person, ever!

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Re: Hack away

"I read there is a booming black market in the US for hacking these "secure" smart meters. Its apparently quite easy to rig them and significantly lower your bills.."

I'm not surprised. But the berks at DECC have balanced the smart metering business case by assuming that smart meters result in quarter of a billion quid savings from reduced electricity theft, and an additional half billion quid of avoided supplier losses (apparently smart meter users will always pay their bills, unlike today).

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Anonymous Coward

" smart meter ... cutting people off from their supply"

"a smart meter would be used in the process of cutting people off from their supply,"

Of course it would.

At least in the UK, demand will exceed supply in the next 5-10 years.

Voltage reductions (brownouts) no longer have any meaningful effect due to thermostats, switched mode power supplies, and other post-1960s improvements.

So to match supply and demand, consumers have to be disconnected.

But if you disconnect everybody in an area (eg by disconnecting the 11kvolt incoming to the area), there'd be some discomfort, hopefully not riots and looting though.

Whereas if you have some means of selectively remotely disconnecting some proportion of consumers, that might not have such dramatic effects as wide-area disconnections. You could even ensure that the essential services (police, lawyers, politicians, etc) don't get disconnected at all.

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Devil

Re: " smart meter ... cutting people off from their supply"

Shit, That's who I'd disconnect first.

Or better yet, sort by income and disconnect starting at the high end. EVERY TIME.

The first time they selectively disconnect Parliment during a visit by the monarch... HA. Can you imagine how many executions would follow if they selectively shut off power to Windsor Castle? Think of the possibilities.

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Re: " smart meter ... cutting people off from their supply"

Hello, giant UPS!

Once they turn the power back on, I'll suck all the energy to charge the batteries.

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If the meter will have a data connection...

If the meter will have a data connection, why not offer everyone free basic (say 5GB cap) broadband as part of the deal?

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Big Brother

Re: If the meter will have a data connection...

5Gb cap, 100kbps throughput after deep packet inspection...

Cynical, Moi?

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Mobile signal?

If it relies on the mobile phone network what will they do where the signal isn't good enough?

Presumably the tinfoil hat wearers will just, er, wrap the meter in tinfoil anyway to block 'them' from doing whatever nefarious things it is that 'they' might do.

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Re: Mobile signal?

Actually, I'm going to wrap mine* in screen-wire so that a live person will be able to walk up and read it with no problem.

* My electric bill is only $18/month, so their cost recovery time will be measured in decades...

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Who is paying to power the smart meter?

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