For most cities, public Wi-Fi and smart meters are separate technologies operated by separate entities. But this week, Santa Clara, Calif., has started combining the two.

The city’s municipal electric utility, Silicon Valley Power (SVP), launched a new program to provide a free, outdoor Wi-Fi network to the community -- that also has a separate Wi-Fi channel for transmitting smart meter data back to the utility. This new MeterConnectSM program, according to Santa Clara officials, is the first of its kind to utilize Wi-Fi for the purpose of reading electric smart meters.

The public Wi-Fi currently covers roughly 90 percent of Santa Clara, and the meter data is transmitted to the utility over a separate channel so it's sent without being intercepted on the public network, said Larry Owens, SVP’s manager of customer services.

“We wanted a technology where we could separate a channel securely to provide this free public access and separate it very securely from utility data traffic,” he said.

The meters themselves operate on a 900 MHz unlicensed band, but information sent over the Wi-Fi network is encrypted. First, it is encrypted at the meter, after which it is sent to a collector, put onto the Wi-Fi network and is re-encrypted again before reaching SVP. Once the data is past SVP’s firewalls, the data is then decrypted.

And only the meter number and usage information is sent over the network, Owens said – none of the customer’s personal information like account numbers or address is transmitted.

As far as deploying the network, SVP spokesman Dan Beerman said it was done through a relatively small investment by the utility, and comes with one primary benefit: a cost reduction in SVP's meter reading efforts.

To deploy the network, Beerman said SVP purchased Metro Wi-Fi, a company that went out of business a few years ago -- and prior to closing its doors, the company developed infrastructure that could be utilized for a Wi-Fi network in Santa Clara.

Since SVP was, at the time, planning the development of its advanced meter connect system, the utility saw the purchase of Metro Wi-Fi as an opportunity to bundle both the Wi-Fi and smart metering.

For network design and installation, the utility later contracted with LinkPath Communications, which is now responsible for customer service and Wi-Fi maintenance.

Owens said the new Wi-Fi network holds a capacity of 16 channels, so with only two channels in use, expansion plans are already in the works.

In the coming months, the city plans to deploy a separate pilot project in which the citywide network would be used for both public safety and internal city purposes, said Santa Clara CIO Gaurav Garg. And in 2014, when the new 49ers NFL stadium opens, Garg said the stadium will have its own separate Wi-Fi owned and managed by the 49ers that he hopes public safety will be able to use in conjunction with the SVP W-Fi for their needs.

Shorter-term goals include developing an SVP Web portal, which is scheduled to go live this summer, and will let customers log into their utility account and view their energy use in “ways like never before,” Owens said. The portal will also operate on the new Wi-Fi network, but Owens, like Garg, said there are many possibilities that still lie ahead for optimal use of the new network.

“We envision the possibility of moving from smart metering to smart grid to smart city,” Owens said.

Photo of Santa Clara's Great America by Eric Broder Van Dyke / Shutterstock.com

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.