How the White Space Ruling Could Affect the Smart Grid

It’s more captivating than the season premier of Glee! Well, for me it is. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has finally detailed a set of rules to govern white space spectrum, which are tiny slivers of airwaves that were freed up when analog TV channel operators moved over to digital. The fun part about the spectrum is that it can potentially create a lot of innovation because it’s unlicensed (free to use, but governed by rules, like Wi-Fi). One of the areas in which white spaces could create some really novel services is the smart grid.

Companies have been waiting for these white space rulings, which were unanimously approved today, for years (the FCC has had hearings since 2004), so that companies can move their experimental projects into commercialization and trade-in experimental FCC licenses for official licenses. As GigaOM’s Ryan Kim wrote this morning, this is the first distribution of unlicensed spectrum in 25 years, and follows up on the release of former “junk” spectrum that eventually was used for Wi-Fi, garage door openers and cordless phones.

One of those experimental projects could soon be the first official white space smart grid network in the world. That’s a network built by startup Spectrum Bridge, including software from Google (s GOOG), for the tiny utility Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative & Telecommunications in the county of Plumas-Sierra in Northern California.

Nestled in the Sierras, Plumas-Sierra County has about 20,000 people who live within the mountainous community, and because of the mountains, the utility and service providers have had a tough time providing broadband and smart grid services to the area. Often, wireless networks need  a clear line of sight to connect, but white space technology can offer wireless connections without line of sight, up to miles away and across rural and hilly regions.

Spectrum Bridge, using an experimental license from the FCC, hooked up a bunch of the utility’s substations (gear deep in the grid that houses transformers) with its networking and software product, then brought in Google and Energy Inc.’s TED devices (a connected energy management dashboard) to create a sort of smart meter network. Spectrum Bridge provided the software and database, Google provided its energy management software, PowerMeter. The TED devices run PowerMeter and display home energy use to the consumer.

Of course this is only a tiny project. Only a dozen TED devices are being used, a Spectrum Bridge spokesperson told me in an interview earlier this year. But given the smart grid is still a nascent market, and utilities are just starting to choose the communications technologies for their networks, if white spaces proves to be particularly apt for running smart grid services, perhaps it could end up playing a valuable role in the future of the power grid.

White space networks could certainly play a role for the smart grid in rural and remote areas: that small section of the population that cell phone carriers sometimes don’t cover. At the GridWise Forum this week, cellular operators and smart grid network buildings were telling me it’s that one percent of the population that they have the hardest time covering, and costs a disproportionate amount of money. But while it might be unfortunate that remote regions don’t have good enough cell phone coverage, smart grid networks need to reach some 99.999 percent of the population, because the utility is governed by regulations. It doesn’t have a choice, and white space tech could be another solid option.

Spectrum Bridge is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

For more on Google’s smart grid white spaces push check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Image courtesy of Cillian Storm.