EPB customers should be able to see how much power they are using and what they owe for electricity on their television or computer screens by next year.

The city-owned utility is working with Alcatel-Lucent and Microsoft to use EPB's fiber-optic network and its new smart electric meters to let consumers find out about their consumption and bills in virtual real time.

EPB Vice President Katie Espeseth said Thursday she hopes the new service could be available as soon as next spring to allow consumers to see their current energy usage and cost.

"We're getting ready to go through an upgrade in the spring that should give us some new capabilities to allow customers to see their power bills on their TV screen or on the web," Espeseth told the Downtown Council of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. "We're going to be the first company in the country to offer this service."

The video display of current individual bills is the latest breakthrough in what Espeseth said is already the largest and most advanced municipally owned telecommunications network in the world.

EPB, which began 75 years ago as an electricity provider, added telephone service a decade ago and expanded into residential video and Internet services in September 2009. In its first 15 months, EPB's fiber-optics division has hooked up more than 19,000 homes and expects to top 20,000 residential and 2,500 business customers by year end.

"We're taking a little over a hundred new orders a day, and we have a backlog now of about 1,000 orders that we are chipping away at every day," Espeseth said.

EPB is about five months ahead of its original business plan, Espeseth said.

"We have something in Chattanooga that no other city has in the country today," she said. "A year from now, we hope to be close to our 35,000 customer mark (needed for the fiber-optic venture to show a profit)."

EPB pioneers gigabit Internet

In September, EPB pioneered the first Gigabit-speed Internet service in any U.S. city, which Espeseth said is helping to attract entrepreneurs and data-based companies to town.

So far, five residential customers and more than a dozen businesses have signed up for the gigabit service even though the Internet speed exceeds the capacity of most computers to handle.

Tom Francescon, a business development officer for Campbell Asset Management and chairman of the Downtown Council, said EPB's telecommunications services and advanced power meters are helping Chattanooga gain global attention among technology businesses.

"I don't think we can overstate the importance of what this means for our community," he said.

Aided by a $111.5 million federal stimulus grant -- the largest per capita grant for a telecommunications service in America -- EPB is laying more than 5,000 miles of fiber-optic lines and installing interactive electric meters to all of its customers by 2012. EPB Marketing Director Danna Bailey has dubbed EPB's version of its "smart meter" a "Mensa meter" because of its extra smart features.

Bell Laboratories is working with EPB to help develop technologies to read and display energy usage information from such meters every 15 minutes to each of the 170,000 homes and businesses served by the utility.

"If you can imagine, it would be something to let you see what you are using and the cost of it, not just an image of last month's bill," EPB spokeswoman Lacie Newton said.

Smarter meters

For now, consumers won't necessarily be able to use that information to their advantage. But next April, TVA will begin to test new time-of-day pricing with its distributors, and eventually TVA plans to adopt pricing schedules so consumers will pay differing rates for electricity at different times of the day.

Smart meters will help consumers to turn appliances, furnaces, air conditioners or water heaters on or off to operate during the least expensive times of the day, when options are available.

Such remote controls with smart meters have raised concerns among some grass-roots groups in California, Maine and, most recently, in Cleveland, Tenn.

In Watsonville, Calif., a group known as Scotts Valley Neighbors Against Smart Meters has petitioned Pacific Gas & Electric not to install smart meters because the group claims they have "serious flaws that may impact the health, safety, and financial well-being" of those hooked up to the devices.

The Bradley County Tea Party is questioning Cleveland Utilities' decision to install smart meters. Donny Harwood, founder of the local tea party group, said he worries that the radio waves used for remote meter reading will create potentially harmful electromagnetic fields while the connections to every home opens the potential for a hacker to disrupt service or for utilities to know about individuals' behavior and viewing habits.

Espeseth said EPB wants to help its customers, "but we certainly aren't spying on anyone."