Cellular smart grid scores a win

The debate over whether utilities will want to build their own networks, or use cellular networks, continues. Now put one on the board for the cellular smart grid side. On Monday, utility Consumers Energy announced it will work with SmartSynch to roll out cellular-based smart meters for 1.8 million customers in Michigan. Consumers Energy says that it will start deploying the network in August 2012 and will continue until 2019.

SmartSynch says Consumers Energy is the largest utility to embrace cellular for smart meters. Earlier this year Duke Energy (s duk) also indicated it would put a large emphasis on cellular networks for its smart grid roll-out, too.

Cellular networks can provide a lot of benefits for utilities’ smart grid plans, particularly for smaller utilities that don’t want to be in the business of building and managing an IT network. Cellphone companies continuously are building out, and enhancing, their networks, so utilities can also benefit from those infrastructure upgrades.

However, many utilities want to build their own private networks because some utilities fear that public networks can’t offer them the reliability and security they need to run utility operations. Cell phone companies have also tended to try to charge utilities high rates to use their networks, though larger utilities like Duke Energy have been able to get better deals from the cell phone firms.

For more on the smart grid public vs private debate, check out our previous articles from Narasimha Chari, co-founder, CTO Tropos (Smart Grid Networks: The Public vs Private Debate) and Stephen Johnston, CEO SmartSynch (10 Reasons Why Utilities Want to Use Public Networks for Smart Grid).

For the phone companies, the smart grid is all about using their wireless networks to sell “machine-to-machine” services. So-called M2M services run data over networks used by devices, but they don’t include consumer customers and cell phone accounts (see our recent report on machine-to-machine networks at GigaOM Pro, subscription required). Consumers can be fickle when it comes to ditching their cellphone companies, resulting in churn and continuous upkeep. A smart grid utility deal, or a machine-to-machine service, in contrast, can be relatively low maintenance and can also diversify traffic on cellular networks.