Tropos, Muni WiFi Maker Converts to Smart Grid

troposimageWhat’s a wireless company to do after betting big and failing on the muni Wi-Fi fad — the city-wide wireless that a couple years ago was supposed to offer consumers a cheaper wireless option than the phone and cable companies? What else: Go after the smart grid market, like so many other communication companies these days. On Tuesday, Tropos, one of the poster children of the muni WiFi movement, plans to announce it is packaging up its network technology in a way that will enable utilities to build their own wireless smart grid networks.
It’s basically the same network technology that Tropos has been selling since 2000, but with a different setup and target customer. Instead of cities, Tropos will sell the system to utilities. Tropos’ smart grid network architecture will place about 1-2 routers per square mile (less dense than a city network) that will sit between the meter at a home and the utility control station. The equipment talks to gear from smart-meter makers like Itron (s INC), Elster and Echelon (s ELON).
Tropos’ smart grid remake is not such a bad idea. Cities with Tropos networks have already used the technology for automated meter reading services, and Tropos has worked with utility Burbank Water & Power on a smart grid pilot program. At the recent National Smart Grid Conference Tropos demoed its gear with smart meter leader Itron.
But it will ultimately be the utilities that will decide what kind of networks they want to use for their smart grid buildouts. Telcos like AT&T are also angling for a piece of the smart grid pie, so Tropos is once again competing against its old competitor in the municipal wireless space. Tropos tells us that its smart grid networks will cost about $2,000 to $5,000 per router and have a return on investment of 3.5 years for a utility. The company says over 5-10 years it is cheaper than if a utility uses a cellular network for the smart grid wireless connection. Who knows if the smart grid buzz can help Tropos kick the old muni Wi-Fi blues, but it can’t hurt any.