Will Utilities Create their Own Smart Networks?

Carl Weinschenk

The folks at the Federal Communications Commission-now firmly under the control of chairman Julius Genachowski-are busy. This week, they set up three inquiries, two of which focus on the wireless sector. The other is a broader inquiry into billing practices.


That the new leadership would take a hard look at a number of things is understandable considering it still is getting its feet on the ground. This Ars Technica story, however, reports on what may be the most challenging question the Commission dealt with this week: Do smart grids need their own dedicated broadband spectrum or is the public wireless infrastructure sufficient?


Whether the answer is yes or no in large measure depends on technical and political issues that will be hashed out by smart engineers and well financed lobbyists. It is possible, however, to make a number of observations which, taken together, prove one thing: This is a very intriguing question.

The first thing to think about is just how broad and shallow smart grid communications is. It's broad in the sense that potentially every home and business in the United States could be part of a smart grid network. It's shallow in that the total amount of bandwidth per premise that's needed is small, at least initially.


But it may not always be so shallow. Simple on/off signaling today is one thing. However, the level of difficulty -- and the importance of a robust system -- becomes far greater when value-added features are added. They invariably will be. Ars Technica points out that the need for robust demand shifting technology will grow in tandem with the popularity of electric cars which, of course, will be recharged from home. I wrote a feature about smart grid technology in April. Henry Jones, the lead for Public Sector Solutions for vendor SmartSynch, told me that utilities are famously controlling about their communications networks. Their approach is to do it themselves. He did say this proclivity is fading a bit as public networks become less expensive to use. It's likely that the industry will return to its go-it-alone roots as smart grids grow more central to the way in which power is distributed and managed.


The natural reluctance to lose control will be exacerbated by the gaps in wireless coverage. In addition, low data rate smart grid networks are unlikely to be a priority to carriers. M2M markets are said to be considered by carriers as reliable sources of revenue -- refrigerators rarely switch carriers -- but not hot areas that get a lot of attention. The utilities will not want to be afterthoughts.


This is a long-term issue that will be a fascinating to watch. The utility industry isn't shy. It has created its networks, including broadband over powerline (BPL) platforms that link them to their ultimate customers. Key moves are being made now. Environmental Leader earlier this month reported that Verizon Wireless and Qualcomm have entered into a joint venture to attack the machine-to-machine (M2M) market, including energy management. The story says that the FCC has retained a former Polaris Ventures employee to look into issues surrounding the interplay of energy, the environment and the U.S. communications infrastructure.

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