5 Reasons Wi-Fi Will Take a Back Seat for the Smart Grid

WiFiAllianceDespite attempts by companies and industry groups to paint the wireless standard Wi-Fi (the one commonly used within buildings for Internet connections) as a winner for smart grid rollouts, it’s looking like Wi-Fi will end up taking a back seat for the next generation of the digital power grid. This morning the trade group the Wi-Fi Alliance looked to drum up attention for the use of Wi-Fi for the smart grid, and announced the publication of a white paper called “Wi-Fi for the Smart Grid.

While the paper provides interesting information for potential Wi-Fi power grid communication applications, here’s five reasons why Wi-Fi will play a lesser roll for the smart grid, both within the home and further out on the power grid.

1). ZigBee in Da House: Wi-Fi’s most valuable role in the smart grid will be found within the home, given the bulk of home wireless networks are based on Wi-Fi. But most device makers building energy management tools and smart appliances, as well as utilities, are concentrating first and foremost on transmitting energy information via the low-power, low-data wireless standard ZigBee.

ZigBee might not be the perfect technology for home energy applications, and in fact Wi-Fi could be a better fit for energy info in the home. But the reality is that ZigBee has started to receive a critical mass of vendors and developers leaning on it for home energy. Wi-Fi will clearly play a role in home energy management as a connection layer (connecting to the ZigBee network and the broadband connection via a gateway), but Wi-Fi chips will likely be embedded in less home energy gear and fewer smart appliances than the Wi-Fi industry would like.

2). WiMAX for Wide Area: Wi-Fi companies, like Tropos, are touting the wireless standard for wide area applications, like connecting smart meter information to the utility back office. The companies and the Wi-Fi Alliance say that because Wi-Fi is an open standard, and has a large ecosystem of vendors involved, the cost to deploy the technology is very low. While that is definitely true, utilities are more quickly turning to the open wireless standard WiMAX for those benefits.

Over the past few months utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric and Australia’s SPAusNet have chosen WiMAX as the wide area network of choice for their smart grid deployments, and have been encouraged by the growing ecosystem of players including Intel (s INTC), GE (s GE), Motorola (s MOTO), and startup GridNet. While that ecosystem isn’t as mature as the Wi-Fi ecosystem (and thus far more expensive) WiMAX players say the costs will start to drop in the near future.

3). The Way of Muni Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi has already been tested in a wide-area setting: as a third option (in addition to cable and DSL) for Internet access in cities. But oh wait, that didn’t work at all. While the technology works great in buildings and homes, when it gets outside in a large network customers found that the network quickly got impacted, suffered from interference and just plain wasn’t reliable. That’s one reason why companies like former muni Wi-Fi maker Tropos are now targeting the smart grid, because the bloom just plain fell off the muni Wi-Fi rose.

4). Interference!: That brings me to a major problem with Wi-Fi: interference! The technology runs over an unlicensed spectrum and is commonly used throughout cities for home broadband connections. Utilities, which will be transmitting important information about the health of the power grid, energy consumption and generation information, won’t be too keen if their signals clash with the many Wi-Fi networks scattered around the place.

5). Security Concerns: While Wi-Fi can be pretty secure with software and encryption these days, utilities, which have higher security requirements and harbor many fears about security, will have major doubts about the security of Wi-Fi. SDG&E’s Director of Network & Communications Services, Jeff Nichols, told me that the utility decided to use WiMAX for a third of its network partly because WiMAX offered a very secure connection over licensed spectrum (Wi-Fi is unlicensed).

Image courtesy of the Wi-Fi-Alliance.