Sprint: 2010 Is a Major Year for The WiMAX Smart Grid

2010 year will be a major year for the wireless standard WiMAX and the smart grid, says Sprint’s (s S) national program manager for utilities Robert Gustin. Sprint, the third largest phone company in the U.S., owns a joint venture with carrier Clearwire (s CLWR) focused on WiMAX, a nascent, high-speed wireless technology that has morphed into an alternative wireless option for cell phone companies’ next-generation networks. Get ready for some big moves and partnerships this year from Sprint and other players when it comes to a WiMAX smart grid, Gustin told us in an interview last Friday.

Sprint, which already has around 100 utility customers using its cellular networks in various capacities, says it’s in discussions with a good portion of those utilities about the possibilities of using WiMAX (or fourth-generation, 4G, as Sprint calls it). Sprint has responded to several smart grid utility bids that have called for a portion of the network to come from 4G, Gustin says. And Sprint is already in discussions with smart grid WiMAX players like GE (s GE), which makes a WiMAX-based smart meter, and startup Grid-Net, which makes WiMAX-based smart grid software.

While Gustin was quiet on details of its WiMAX smart grid announcements coming up, he was clear on what he thought were some of the benefits for Sprint, utilities and the smart grid ecosystem: “embedded cost.” In other words because WiMAX is an open standard, with large players like Intel (s INTC), Motorola (s MOT) and GE building gear, the cost of WiMAX smart grid equipment could come down substantially in the future. As the CEO of Grid-Net, Ray Bell, put it to us last year: WiMAX chip sets currently cost around $36, but in a year they’ll be closer to $12, and in another 6 months they could hit $8 or even $6.

As the carrier that is pushing WiMAX the most in the U.S., Sprint clearly has an incentive to sell services over the nascent network, which launched in several cities over the past couple of years. While Clearwire service is available in select locations like Las Vegas, Chicago, several cities in Texas and Portland, the build out has been somewhat slow going. The argument from industry players that dismiss a WiMAX-based smart grid is that until there’s a national WiMAX network, WiMAX will only play a minor role.

Outside of the U.S. a WiMAX-based smart grid could happen a lot more swiftly. In late October Grid Net announced that it would be supplying its software product for Australian utility customer SP AusNet. SP AusNet’s network, will use Motorola hardware, Unwired Australia’s wireless spectrum, and will cost some “hundreds of millions” of dollars to build.

Still, U.S. utilities are clearly keeping an eye on WiMAX. Texas-based CenterPoint was one of the first utilities to test out GE’s WiMAX-based smart meters. National Grid will be testing out WiMAX gear provided by Alvarion, to connect smart meters and distribution automation devices to the utilities’ back office. Last year San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) said it had applied for stimulus funds to build a smart grid wireless network that would include about 30 percent of its network built with WiMAX. Southern California Edison (SCE) has also said it is looking at WiMAX for part of its smart grid network.

Gustin says a lot of the interest in a WiMAX smart grid this year is being supplied by the $4 billion in stimulus funds, which the DOE announced back in October. As these funds reach the utilities that have WiMAX plans, expect to see some big news in this space this year.

Image courtesy of Clearwire.