Utility Week

UTILITY Week 22nd January 2016

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utILIty WEEK | 22nd - 28th January 2016 | 9 Interview S even months out from the start of the mass roll- out of smart meters into every home in the UK, Jonathan Simcock, managing director of the Data and Communications Company (DCC) still cannot guarantee that the DCC network – the data and com- munications infrastructure underpinning the entire programme – will be ready on time. On the release of the DCC's first four-year business plan, Simcock sits down exclusively with Utility Week in the Capita offices in Victoria, London, and says the com- pany is working "incredibly hard", but risks and uncer- tainties remain that leave the start date in jeopardy. The business plan reveals that many key issues are unresolved, such as how to tackle the rising number of "foundation" meters and how to ensure distribution network operators (DNOs) receive what they need from smart metering for the transition to smart grids. Despite these concerns, however, Simcock is confi- dent the DCC will deliver a network capable of support- ing the national smart meter rollout. The programme is undoubtedly a monumental task for energy suppliers. Installing more than 50 million meters in under four years is already a huge ask, but if the DCC were to miss its target for an August start date, adding to a series of push-backs to the programme's timeframe, the end date of 2020 for the programme may prove impossible to meet. The impact of failing to hit the government-imposed 2020 deadline for a smart meter in every home is more than reputational. It would hit both suppliers and net- work companies in the pocket because contracts have been signed and they have paid to get everything in place for August whether the network is working or not. Simcock says the company is doing "everything humanly possible to hit August" but he can't guaran- tee anything. The reality is that the process could yet be torpedoed by the unexpected despite all the hard work, and Simcock is not prepared to cut corners in order to meet the deadline. The business plan says that although integration testing is progressing well, the August deadline is sub- ject to "risks and uncertainties". An internal "baseline" specification is scheduled to be released in April that will allow the DCC and everyone else to test their sys- tems, and Simcock says that if that April deadline is met, confidence will rise about an August go-live. But there is still every possibility that systems integration testing will throw up something that brings the process to a grinding halt – and if it does, he says he will not cover up any setback in order to save face. "If in the course of testing we hit something that we don't expect and we have to deal with it, we will put it on the table and let everybody know," says Simcock. "The date is really, really important, but what's even more important is that it is a good result. We have all kinds of governance around the go-live decision to make sure we don't take it live unless it is right. "What we are not going to do is get a sloppy go-live into something that is very unreliable and hope it all comes right in the second release. We want to get it right first time." The DCC actually has three months grace on the go- live, until the end of October. Only aer that point will it be declared officially to have missed the deadline. But notwithstanding his declaration that he is prepared to take the time needed to get things right, Simcock says he does not believe he will have to draw on this contingency beyond a few days. What is important now, he says, is stability, which is why the DCC is hoping the Competition and Markets Authority does not follow through on its initial recom- mendation to prioritise prepayment customers in the rollout. In a submission to the CMA last year, the DCC strongly warned against the idea. Currently the fixes for prepay- ment meters will be among the last technology put in place because they are among the most complicated. Prioritising prepayment would almost certainly delay the programme, Simcock says, and subject prepay customers to the teething problems he expects aer go-live.

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