For the smart grid, the wireless debates are over

A couple of years ago some of the fiercest debates within the smart grid industry were around what wireless technology — from cellular to RF mesh to WiMAX to Wi-Fi mesh — would power the future of the digital power grid. Today the networking companies like Silver Spring Networks and Cisco (s CSCO), which are selling these networks of connected grid devices to utilities, seem to be embracing a wide range of wireless technologies, now offering utilities a variety of choices.
On Monday Silver Spring Networks announced Gen4, the latest version of its smart grid network technology, which enables utilities to be able to mix and match wireless smart grid options, including using cellular connections along with the company’s staple wireless mesh. Silver Spring Networks counts utility customers like PG&E, ComEd and FPL.
Last week, when Cisco unveiled its overarching design architecture for the smart grid, the company emphasized how its connected grid devices would be able to connect over cellular (2G or 3G), RF mesh and WiMAX. Similarly, last year smart grid software company Grid Net moved away from its emphasis on WiMAX as the optimal wireless option for the smart grid network and decided that its technology would be network-technology-agnostic.
Why does this matter? The move shows the continued maturing of the smart grid industry as utilities’ smart grid projects have finally moved into large commercial deployments and the networking companies are now getting feedback from their utility customers and are tweaking their products accordingly.
A couple of years ago cellular networks weren’t seen as viable options by many utilities for the backbone of the smart grid, for a variety of reasons, including that telecom companies were charging utilities rates that were too high. But since then the phone companies have revised their rates and changed their strategies, and utilities like Duke Energy have embraced cellular as an important network for digitally managing devices on the grid.
For some telecom companies, smart grid traffic could become a substantial part of their business. Last week Sprint announced that a variety of smart grid vendors will be using its wireless networks to provide connectivity, including Silver Spring Networks, building automation company Power Insight, meter maker Itron and substation networking company Lanner Electronics.
About three years ago I profiled the then CEO of Grid Net, Ray Bell, who described to me how WiMAX was the best wireless standard for the smart grid. I compared his commitment to WiMAX to almost a religion. Today I think those fierce debates and attachments to any one wireless technology are over. The vendors and the industry now realize there is room for a variety of wireless technologies that suit the needs of the customer: the utility.
Image courtesy of Horia Varlan, cking