Summary:

Not all cellular network traffic comes from our cell phones and gadgets; a growing amount will come from machines using these networks to communicate, including the utilities that provide you with power and water. Spring announced a host of new smart grid partnerships on Thursday.

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Not all cellular network traffic comes from our cell phones and gadgets; a growing amount will come from machines using these networks to communicate (Internet of Things), including the utilities that provide you with power and water. On Thursday, Sprint announced that a variety of smart grid vendors will be using its wireless networks to provide connectivity, including smart grid network firm Silver Spring Networks, building automation company Power Insight, meter maker Itron and substation networking company Lanner Electronics.

In years past, the wireless companies wanted to move more rapidly into the smart grid ecosystem, but were charging potential vendors and utilities too high a rate for renting space on their wireless networks. That high tariff was a barrier for the mobile operators to be able to win over any major business beyond being used as backhaul (the most basic connectivity on the network). But that changed more recently, and the carriers have been dropping their rates and have emerged as contenders for providing more of the wireless connectivity for the backbone of the smart grid.

All the mobile firms — from AT&T to Verizon to Sprint — are looking to win over smart grid partnerships this year, and the smart grid networking companies like Silver Spring Networks and Cisco are using wireless in pieces of their networks. Smaller companies like GridNet and SmartSynch are building entire platforms around the carriers’ networks. Some utilities like Duke Energy are embracing wireless wholeheartedly.

Sprint made this announcement in time for the upcoming DistribuTECH show in San Antonio, Texas, next week. At DistribuTECH, all the smart grid vendors and utilities will be showing off their latest products and partnerships. Earlier in 2010, when I last talked with Sprint on utility partnerships, Sprint said it had around 100 utility customers using its wireless networks in various capacities, and the phone company was making a big push around a WiMAX smart grid.

So called “machine-to-machine communications,” like the smart grid, can be a lot more low-maintenance for carriers compared to consumer cell phone accounts. With M2M, carriers don’t have to worry about churn (consumers ditching them for competitors) as much, and M2M also provides carriers with diversity for their business and traffic flow (see our  report on machine-to-machine networks at GigaOM Pro, subscription required).

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