How WiMAX Can Retool the Power Grid

WiMAX might have been coined wireless betamax by phone companies lately, but a serial entrepreneur with a background in network management from Cisco is betting WiMAX is the wireless standard to usher in the smart grid era. That would be Ray Bell, the founder of smart meter software startup Grid Net. You might have heard of him from the dotcom days when he founded network management startup SmartPipes (a play on the carrier as the dumb pipe) with funds from Netscape founder Jim Clark and Kleiner Perkin’s John Doerr.

Bell left the networking world and SmartPipes after the bottom dropped out of that market, and he got his start in the power industry by joining cleantech heavyweight Foundation Capital as an Entrepreneur in Residence and later became CEO of Foundation’s smart grid portfolio company Silver Spring Networks. Bell refocused the company, recruited the current CEO and left the firm after envisioning a different direction for the smart grid. Fast-forward to four years later and Bell’s vision of the smart grid — Grid Net — now competes with Silver Spring on some of its utility deals.

What’s Grid Net’s pitch? Grid Net makes the software that can run a smart grid based on WiMAX, delivering a smart meter built around truly open standards that will benefit from economies of scale; in a year and a half Bell says his smart meter will be cheaper than proprietary-based ones out there. The idea has sparked the interest of GE and Intel, which both invested in Grid Net and are also partnering on production: GE makes the smart meter, and Intel the WiMAX chip.

The meters could use national WiMAX networks (likely Clearwire, but Bell didn’t comment on that) or WiMAX networks that would be built and owned by a utility. There are a lot of issues to work out, but Grid Net’s smart meter went on sale to select utilities in March, and Bell says there are four big utility deals in the pipeline. He’s betting the company on the success of the WiMAX standard — hardly a sure thing — but if the smart grid really will follow the lessons of the Internet, open standards will be a key driver.

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