Will WiFi and WiMAX become beneficiaries of the smart grid?

While more than $7 billion in broadband stimulus funds are expected to flow into the telecommunications industry to improve broadband coverage in unserved and underserved areas, some WiFi and WiMAX companies are also positioning themselves to receive another economic stimulus windfall.

They are targeting the utility industry and positioning their technology to enable the smart grid--an IP-based system that will enable utilities to monitor energy use and consumers to understand their consumption habits. Some $4.5 billion is earmarked for smart grid projects, with potentially billions more coming from other funding provisions that have to do with energy.  

Last week, smart meter networking startup Trilliant purchased WiFi mesh network vendor SkyPilot. Trilliant said the acquisition will be a complement to its shorter-range "SecureMesh" technology, which is based on Zigbee, to link meter collection points. SkyPilot has developed a longer range mesh WiFi technology that can propagate up to 10 miles or more. It incorporates a synchronous mesh architecture with high-speed switched directional antenna arrays that extends reach, mitigates interference and allows for multiple concurrent conversations to be handled at the same time on the same frequency.

Another WiFi mesh vendor, Tropos, recently announced a move into the smart grid space, introducing its GridCom architecture for building a wide-area aggregation network for smart-grid communications.

WiMAX vendor Alvarion has been conducting pilots with unnamed utilities. Ashish Sharma, vice president of corporate communications with Alvarion, said his company is seeing a number of RFPs and requests for information. Electricity industry heavyweight GE Energy and Intel are building WiMAX-enabled smart meters. The beauty of WiMAX, said Sharma, is that the technology eliminates the need for collection points via Zigbee. "With WiMAX, we can go directly into the home."

Of course, these technologies will be competing against mobile operator initiatives, which call for an outsourced approach to the smart grid. AT&T, for instance, has teamed with SmartSynch to offer solutions to utilities. But analysts expect there will be significant room for both network ownership and outsourced models.

I won't be surprised to see many more creative partnerships and acquisitions that will tackle the smart grid. We could also see some interesting two-pronged strategies that look to dip into both the broadband stimulus funds and money earmarked for energy.-Lynnette


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