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19 May 2017

The Smart metering firmware management headache – five lessons learned for UK energy retailers

I hate that feeling when my phone beeps to tell me I need to upgrade… I know it’s for the best, making my phone more secure or providing new functionality, but what will break? What settings will change? The same concerns also affect back office teams assessing risk vs reward of deploying smart asset firmware upgrades. 

Firmware upgrades can deliver new customer propositions, or keep assets safe, secure and compliant. Often, operational issues prompt the need for new firmware to ensure assets are safe and secure. Recently, suppliers have faced challenges deploying upgrades for SMETS1 compliance, which also addresses stranding risks and optimises the asset investment. I have outlined five lessons learned from my experience supporting clients to deliver SMETS1 firmware upgrades:

  1. Prioritise - Dual fuel properties with two to three devices might require multiple upgrades each year. For small suppliers with 100 thousand customers, this could lead to one thousand upgrades a day and over 50 thousand upgrades a day for larger ones. Suppliers should implement robust governance ensuring the pipeline of upgrades is prioritised on mandatory, regulatory or optional criteria. This manages multiple upgrade requirements and keeps data costs to planned budgets.
  2. Test, test and test again! There will be bugs! Testing is key to minimise operational and financial risks of firmware upgrades. Suppliers should review manufacturer test certificates and stand up test labs to execute product assurance testing on devices. End-to-end testing of the upgradability of firmware from differing starting firmware levels informs failure states of the assets and their backwards compatibility when coordinating upgrades across asset sets.
  3. Use your super-friendlies - Pilots inform which customers to target, indicative success rates, exception scenarios and geographical or time constraints on networks. Successful pilots identify the right volume of target assets to provide enough data for informing decisions. The ability to target customers on specific criteria such as locations during pilot makes it easier to retrieve assets that fail for triage.
  4. Get the business ready - This is not just an IT challenge. Even with all the testing in the world, some things will not go to plan. The business needs to be prepared to work exceptions, schedule site visits and manage potential call volume. Integrated planning across impacted business teams supports demand governance and reduces the risk of day-to-day processes falling over.
  5. Scalability - Supplier systems need to be scalable for deploying firmware to 1-10k devices for smaller suppliers and up to 50-200K devices per day for larger ones. Stress test these systems today and ensure long-term planning for future investment to scale. Learning that your solution doesn’t scale once you have tens of thousands of meters installed will lead to significant operational issues.

While most suppliers are focused on deployment of smart meters in towards the 2020 deadline, it’s important they also invest in the capabilities to operate and maintain the assets, ensuring BAU processes do not fall over. As SMETS2 is rolled out, challenges will become greater at scale with suppliers connecting with the Data Communications Company (DCC) and managing DCC quarterly service request forecasts.

Ensuring smart metering firmware upgrades become as reliable and as normal as regular phone upgrades is the aim of the game! Managing upgrades into the business through prioritisation and scaling technology required for deploying it mitigates against operational and financial risks on the supplier’s business and its customers. This is central to remote asset management strategy for firmware upgrades.