As previously reported by the Cleveland Daily Banner, the opt-out rate proposed by CU President and CEO Tom Wheeler earlier this month is $10 per month, a flexible amount that could go up or down once the utility has monitored its costs for continuing to manually read standard, non-AMR meters at the homes of about 40 customers.
The number could reach as many as 100 by the time CU crews and contractors have completed the installation of AMR units to some 30,000 residential and commercial customers by Oct. 1. At the board’s most recent gathering, Wheeler said crews have begun the final phase of AMR installation. To date, some 26,000 automated meters have been installed, prompting about 40 customers to decline the technology.
Wheeler projected more will follow before the initiative is finished. Since the AMR installation project began last year, Wheeler said he has learned the handful of customers who oppose the technology do so for different reasons. Some are concerned about the safety of radio frequency signals, the same technology used in cellphones. Some see it as an invasion of privacy. Others view it as the realization of “Big Brother,” a concept first driven by the George Orwell novel “1984.”
The opt-out rate proposal is intended for two reasons, Wheeler explained. One, it will prevent CU from entering a confrontational mode with its customers; and two, it will give the small number of households an option — pay an added fee for continuing to use the old meters in order to help CU offset additional travel costs for manual meter-reading, or accept the installation of the AMR meters.
Although AMR technology is new to CU customers, it has been used by public utilities for several years locally, nationally and globally. Volunteer Energy Cooperative installed automated meter reading units a few years ago, including at the homes and businesses of 17,500 customers in Bradley County.
The VEC units are similar to those being installed by CU; however, they differ in that their data is fed through existing power lines as opposed to the radio frequency signals to be used by CU meters.
It is this electronic transmission of data that is already protected by existing CU customer-privacy policies; however, Wheeler reported to board members at the most recent session that the company wants to take an added measure to reassure its customers of the safeguarding of existing customer information and new data received from electronic meter-reading technology.
“We wanted to specifically spell out the fact that our meter-reading data certainly falls under this existing policy we’ve had for years,” Wheeler told the board.
On hand to explain CU’s privacy practices were Walt Vineyard, CU vice president of Information Technology, and Shane Lawson, manager of Customer Data.
As is the practice of other public utilities, most of CU’s customer information is stored within its computer system, Wheeler explained. Lawson pointed out CU operates its computer system in a heavily “protected mode,” and includes the required encryption of customer credit card and Social Security numbers.
Vineyard pointed to other steps CU takes in staving off attempts at identification theft or other criminal practices in today’s expanding age of electronics.
Lawson said CU occasionally encounters customers who have attempted to pay their monthly statements online using stolen credit cards or even personal bank account numbers. In such cases of suspected activity, CU immediately locks customers out from their accounts until an investigation can be completed.
Wheeler and Lawson assured the board CU has not encountered any cases where customer data has been compromised.
Wheeler pointed out the utility has always felt its existing policies already govern electronically read data; however, as an added assurance to customers the company will recommend an expanded version at the next board meeting. CU routinely reviews its customer privacy policies every two years, the CU leader explained.
He said Cleveland Utilities takes the protection of its customers’ private information “very seriously.”
The next CU board session is scheduled Thursday at 3 p.m. in the training center.