Steamboat’s ‘smart’ water meters under fire from Internet providers
August 13, 2012
Steamboat Springs — Two local broadband providers are worried that the thousands of new, wireless water meters being deployed in Steamboat Springs could soon disrupt Internet service to as many as 150 of their customers.
The heads of Zirkel Wireless and Resort Broadband said Monday that because the meters the city started to install this week will beam their readings through the same unlicensed frequency some of their customers use to access the Internet, any interference could create a headache for both sides.
"The city has no guarantee they won’t get interference and their $1 million investment will work properly," Zirkel Wireless owner Sean Heskett said. "I’m not against the idea of them having a new smart water meter system. I think the technology is great. The problem is they chose to use an unlicensed frequency."
He said the city’s choice to run the meters on the 900 megahertz frequency is "very similar to giving all of your firefighters walkie-talkies from Walmart and hoping they won’t get any interference."
Heskett said his company uses the 900 MHz frequency to connect with isolated customers who have very few alternative options to log on to the Internet.
City officials said that they did their homework before signing off on the project and that they saved a significant amount of money with their choice of a vendor for the meter upgrades.
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Anne Small, Steamboat’s director of general services, said Monday that the city saved $250,000 by choosing to have their meters use the unlicensed frequency instead of a licensed band similar to the one used by Routt County emergency dispatchers.
City Manager Jon Roberts said that while the Internet providers have raised legitimate and serious concerns about the new meters, the city’s $1 million contract with Ferguson Waterworks, Datamatic and RG-3 Utilities guarantees that any potential problems will be corrected at the expense of the vendor, not taxpayers.
"This was a legitimate concern that was brought to our attention, but the experts tell me the concerns will be solved if they come to be by the guarantee in our contract," Roberts said, adding the city is committed to enhancing broadband services in the community, not interrupting it.
The potential interference would impact only wireless Internet service providers like Zirkel Wireless and Resort Broadband and not cable or DSL Internet service providers like Comcast and CenturyLink. Wireless Internet service providers, or WISPs, commonly serve rural areas that lack cable and digital subscriber lines, or DSL.
Small said that before the city’s Public Works Department selected the vendor, it used a technology consultant who checked with cities like Durango and Silverthorne and confirmed that their smart meters, which also run on unlicensed frequencies, have not had any significant issues from interference.
Still, Heskett said he was disappointed when he learned last month the city was going to use an unlicensed frequency.
He and Resort Broadband President Evan Biagi met with Roberts and other city officials last week to discuss their concerns about the potential interference.
Former City Council member and Northwest Data Services owner Jon Quinn also attended the meeting.
He said Monday that the meeting should have happened before a contract was signed.
"I think the process broke down, and this decision should have been vetted more throughly," he said. "This should be a 25-year investment, and they’ve just invested $1 million in a technology that is on an unlicensed band. The latest and greatest iPad could soon use 900 MHz, and the city has zero recourse if some future technology like that interferes with their meters."
City officials said that with a contract already signed, their meter upgrades will proceed as planned.
Steamboat Water District Utilities Superintendent Joe Zimmerman told the Steamboat Today last month the upgraded meters will benefit the city's water customers. He said the new technology will allow the water district to quickly inform its customers of leaks and provide them with daily data about their water usage, sometimes saving them money and water.
Zimmerman did not return a phone message Monday afternoon to discuss the broadband providers’ concerns about the project.
Heskett and the city officials could not predict with any certainty whether any interference will be created by the new meters.
But as workers get more of the meters online this week, both sides soon could find out.
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com