Blog Post

WiMAX for Smart Grid: Arcadian Gets Connected

Talk of a smart grid enabled by the nascent wireless standard WiMAX has been growing in recent months, and today brings the latest development: Arcadian Networks, a startup that owns licensed 700-megahertz spectrum across a swath of the American heartland and is selling smart grid services to utilities, has jumped into the WiMAX smart grid market with its new AE20r gateway device.

The move makes Arcadian the latest tech vendor to tackle the WiMAX smart grid market. Sprint (s S) wants utilities to use the WiMAX network it’s building in partnership with Clearwire (s CLWR) for smart grid applications. San Francisco-based startup Grid Net has launched its first utility job in Australia to prove out its WiMAX-enabled smart meters and underlying software, and vendors such as General Electric (s GE) and Alvarion are offering WiMAX gear to utilities such as Texas’s CenterPoint Energy (s CNP) and New England’s National Grid (s NGG) that want to run their own high-speed, next-generation wireless networks.

In the cellular world WiMAX is struggling against an alternative “4G” technology known as Long-Term Evolution, or LTE, with Sprint-Clearwire carrying the WiMAX banner against LTE backers like Verizon (s VZ) and AT&T (s T). But for the smart grid, WiMAX could offer some important benefits. WiMAX can provide a lot of bandwidth for applications like mobile workforce. WiMAX technology can also potentially be really cheap in the future because it’s an open standard and so many large manufacturing partners are building an ecosystem including GE (s GE), Motorola (s MOT) and Intel (s INTC).

“There are a lot of companies making a lot of bets out there” on different networking technologies, is how Ed Solar, Arcadian’s CEO, put it in an interview last week — and Arcadian wants to connect them all, including WiMAX.  The startup’s selling point is a bit like that coming from the cellular providers for smart grid — ride on our networks, and avoid the costs of building your own. But by specializing in utility-specific networks, Arcadian hopes to ease utility worries about smart grid traffic being bumped in favor of supporting consumer data traffic.

The startup, backed with about $90 million from Goldman Sachs, Gilo Ventures and Clal Industries, has utility clients to which it can offer its WiMAX product. It has a showcase client in Great River Energy, a generation and transmission utility that spans Minnesota and is connecting about 16 underlying electricity with Arcadian’s network. Arcadian is also in discussions with at least five other utilities, Solar said, though he wouldn’t name them.

One utility the startup is definitely working with, however, is San Diego Gas & Electric. That utility’s Department of Energy-funded GridComm project represents a “prime example of, how do you look at the network of networks” for smart grid, Solar said. GridComm’s goal is a network that can support every utility need, from low-cost, 15-minute or hourly interval smart meter data exchange to the super-fast and reliable connections needed for substation automation or bandwidth-intense IP video security camera systems.

SDG&E said specifically that WiMAX would be part of GridComm’s suite of solutions, and while Solar wouldn’t say whether Arcadian was doing that for the utility, citing a nondisclosure agreement, he said the new gateway could definitely support it.