The Meaning Behind the Messages

Robbie MacIntosh, Director of Technical Operations

On 29th November 2019, British Gas connected the three millionth second-generation smart meter (SMETS2) to the Data Communications Company’s (DCC) secure network. SMETS2 numbers have tripled in little more than six months and each million has been achieved more quickly than the last.  There is now real momentum behind the project and we’re seeing up to 32 meters connected every minute of the day.

Each of these connections means more data streaming across the network. We measure that traffic in “messages”, with each one representing a specialised package of encrypted information. Encryption allows data to only be read by those who entitled to see that information. For instance, the DCC can’t decrypt meter readings, but a consumer’s energy supplier can. These levels of privacy and security are core to the design of the network.

Each message performs a specialised duty, from meter readings to complex software updates. The most common messages are those to do with meter readings, making up 60% of network traffic. Smart meters take readings of energy consumption throughout the day, but will combine these into a single message, sometimes containing 24hrs or more of information. Reducing the number of messages saves on bandwidth and energy. Our system could accommodate much more data, and that’s one of the reasons why the DCC is mandated within its licence to explore potential further use of the network (such as bespoke services to the energy industry or for other “public good” uses, including water metering, healthcare in the home, or fire detection).

Given the multiple levels of security and privacy afforded by the DCC network, it is no surprise that security-related messages form another large part of the network traffic. For example, virtual security “keys” are generated and exchanged whenever a consumer switches supplier, to keep usage details private. There are also a variety of messages that are required to install and connect new meters securely to the network.

Other messages include tariff changes, firmware updates, topping-up data relating to pre-payment meters, settings changes, and alerts for issues. Many other functions could be added to meters to increase further their value to smart homes across the country. Energy companies and network operators who are DCC customers can now request to add new, unique features via a bespoke elective communications services process.

In May this year the DCC network was carrying 44 million messages a month; by November that had risen to 106 million. We have now surpassed half a billion messages travelling across our network this year, and at this rate in 2020 we will easily achieve a billion.

The data we’re collecting is already outside human comprehension: each of these half a billion messages might contain hundreds of data points. Numbers this large are hard to comprehend. For instance, counting to a million would take two weeks; counting to a billion would take 31 years. Because no human could ever hope to understand this information, using machine learning and AI to digest the messages produced by our growing network is becoming essential.

We’re using these tools to improve the smart meter roll-out and find issues on the network before they become problems. DCC’s customers – the energy suppliers and network operators -- will be using these tools to help inform a smarter grid. This will enable more use of renewable energy and technology to help store it, which will keep energy green even when wind and solar aren’t viable.

The smart meter implementation programme was initiated to digitise Britain’s energy network and support the nation’s journey towards zero carbon. It is not just about saving the energy and the time wasted by physically reading analogue meters; the data provided about how exactly the country is using energy will fuel our crucial fight against climate change.