Grid Net, a startup that has built a business around utilizing the wireless standard WiMAX for the smart grid, now has a partnership with the U.S. carrier that’s made the biggest bet on WiMAX: Sprint. On Monday morning, Grid Net announced it will work with Sprint to develop smart grid products based around Grid Net’s smart meter software and Sprint’s next-generation speedy 4G WiMAX-based network.
While the release doesn’t name any potential utility customers, Grid Net says its current products have all been certified for Sprint’s 4G network, and a collaboration would be focused on connecting smart meters and smart grid routers via Sprint’s network. Given there have been few carriers the size of Sprint in the world that have bet so heavily on WiMAX, partnering with Sprint was a necessary and crucial move for Grid Net and for the notion of a smart grid based around WiMAX.
For those who aren’t telecom nerds, 4G is the next upgrade to the phone company’s wireless networks, which will deliver mobile data, cell phone web browsing and wireless downloading at speeds in the multiple Mbps range. Most carriers — Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile — have chosen Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology for their 4G networks, while Sprint, in collaboration with Clearwire, is working on delivering 4G via WiMAX.
WiMAX has been able to get to market more quickly than LTE, which is one reason why a carrier like Sprint has invested in it. WiMAX is also an open standard; heavyweights like Motorola, Intel and GE have supported the technology; and because of economies of scale, WiMAX chips have expected to drop in price dramatically, enabling a low-cost network deployment.
Sprint’s National Program Manager for Utilities Robert Gustin told me earlier this year that 2010 would be an important year for Sprint’s support of a WiMAX-based smart grid. Sprint already has around 100 utility customers using its cellular networks in various capacities, and Gustin told me that Sprint is in discussions with a good portion of those utilities about the possibility of using WiMAX for their smart grid networks. Gustin said Sprint has already responded to several smart grid utility bids that have called for a portion of the network to come from 4G, and that in addition to Grid Net, Sprint is also in discussion with GE, which makes a WiMAX-based smart meter.
Sprint owns the majority share of WiMAX-advocate Clearwire, which started its WiMAX network rollout in late 2008, and as of earlier this month, covers 51 million people in 49 markets. Grid Net doesn’t specifically name Clearwire in its announcement with Sprint, but Grid Net counts Clearwire as one of the members of its partner program, which it launched in late 2009, and which also includes Intel, GE, and Motorola.
Grid Net and Sprint emphasize in the release that the partnership will be based around Sprint’s 4G network, not necessarily WiMAX, which could be another recent nod to the fact that WiMAX hasn’t delivered as much success in the U.S. as many had hoped. Both Sprint and Clearwire have suggested that they might implement LTE as well, seemingly in a hedge to WiMAX losing traction in the U.S., as Om noted recently. Grid Net has also said in recent months that it will make its software available for other wireless standards, like LTE, and that the company went with WiMAX because it has been the first 4G standard available.
Clearwire ended its second quarter with 1.7 million total subscribers. According to Infonetics Research, WiMAX equipment and device revenue was down 2 percent in the first quarter of 2010 to $303 million. Intel, which has backed both Clearwire and Grid Net, reportedly closed its WiMAX office in Taiwan, and has been hit in the face by continuous losses on its WiMAX investments.
However, Sprint and Clearwire have already invested significantly in WiMAX in the U.S., so don’t expect those networks to fade for at least several years. Sprint’s WiMAX network covers 43 million potential customers, and Sprint aims to boost that number to 120 million before the end of 2010. Perhaps smart grid services will be one of the saving graces of these networks, as the number of consumers signing on has been slow because of lack of killer WiMAX devices. Sprint’s largest success with a WiMAX consumer device has been with the HTC Evo.
Sprint has been indicating it wants to boost its smart grid services for awhile — all of the carriers have. So called “machine-to-machine communications” like the smart grid don’t include consumer customers (which can be fickle), and run data over networks used by devices (see our report on machine-to-machine networks at GigaOM Pro, subscription required). A smart grid utility deal can be relatively low maintenance compared to consumers and can also diversify cellular networks.
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Image courtesy of Sprint.