According to IDC Energy Insights' Worldwide Quarterly Smart Meter Tracker, the global smart meter industry shipped nearly 7.0 million meters in the first quarter of 2012. Shipments were up 28.8% year over year with shipments projected to grow 111.3% on an annual basis from 2011 to the end of 2012.

While growth in smart metering will continue to surge as utilities around the world replace aging, outdated, or non-existent infrastructure, obstacles remain in the path towards the universal adoption of smart metering. First, the business case for "advanced" metering infrastructure (AMI) is ultimately dependent upon a functioning market for electricity. A utilities incentive to deploy AMI then depends upon the structure of the regional electricity market. For example, in some areas, the deregulation of the last 40 years has removed factors that serve as drivers for AMI for more vertically integrated utilities. Another challenge has been the slow evolution of AMI communications and security specifications by utility regulators. A smart metering system represents a large investment for any utility and utilities are understandably reluctant to deploy a system that may not meet future specifications.

Despite these challenges, smart meters have transformed the staid utility industry in the last 10 years. As local markets continue to experiment and develop experience with AMI, the global metering market is approaching an inflection point along the AMI adoption curve. Dean Chuang, senior research analyst with IDC Energy Insights notes, "Smart meters are no longer a matter of 'if', but a question of 'when' and 'what form.' Smart meters are becoming less expensive, and vendors and local utilities are increasingly developing solutions appropriate for the needs and smart grid aspirations of the local market."

From a local perspective however, the question of "when" is rarely certain, even when mandates or government directives suggest that deployment is imminent. Petr Stabrawa, senior research analyst with IDC Energy Insights EMEA, notes that "The European smart metering market is still waiting for its moment. Some countries, like Spain and Poland, are driving activity, while others have moved more cautiously or have been restrained by local politics. Despite this mixed picture IDC believes that the majority of EU member states will proceed with smart meter rollouts and the region will gain momentum in 2013 and 2014."

The smart metering marketplace continues to evolve, and local utilities and vendors continue to explore AMI solutions appropriate for the demands of the local market. As the industry has matured in the last decade, smart metering and communications technology has grown far beyond the original application of fixed PLC and RF networks on solid state meters. Basic FSK PLC still exists and RF Mesh has virtually become de rigueur in several geographies, but some utilities are now turning to cellular, fiber, and other next-generation communications techniques. From a hardware perspective, cabinet and pole-mounted systems, communications hubs, and prepay have all become viable local specifications. What innovations will come in the next decade?