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In the world of smart grid, there tends to be two kinds of networks — short range local area networks (LANs) that connect neighborhoods of smart meters together, and bigger-pipe “backhaul” wide-area networks (WANs) to carry that collected data back to the utility. But wait — there’s also a third kind of utility network, a super high-speed, low-latency one that connects the switches, capacitor banks and transformers of the grid (the big machines that push and pull power around the grid, keeping it from blowing up) often with fiber connections at major substations.
Smart meter wireless networking company Trilliant bought long-range wireless provider SkyPilot Networks last May with the goal of bringing all three kinds of networks in-house. On Tuesday, it announced its new bridge products that can link Trilliant’s low-power wireless LANs with its SkyPilot-based, high speed mesh and point-to-point WANs, at latencies low enough to run substation and distribution grid gear as well, according to Eric Miller, senior vice president of solutions. While Trilliant has only a few utility clients, including Canadian utility Milton Hydro, using both LAN and WAN networks right now, Miller said the company intends to go forward selling them as a package.
Redwood City, Calif.-based Trilliant has been around since 1985, but refocused on the smart grid about six years ago, a goal for which it has since raised about $40 million in VC financing. Its biggest client is Ontario, Canada utility Hydro One, which is using Trilliant to create a neighborhood area-network for some 800,000 meters installed, out of an estimated 1.1 million due by the end of next year. (Hydro One isn’t using WAN from Trilliant, since it already chose chosen Canadian WiMAX network provider Redline Communications for its WAN needs, Miller noted).
All in all, Trilliant has connected more than a million smart grid devices — about the same as rival Silver Spring Networks, though the latter company has a bigger backlog, about seven times the VC cash, and a lot more media attention. The two also differ in key ways, such as Silver Spring’s choice of 900-megahertz proprietary radios — industry standard in the talking meter business — with Internet protocol for networking, versus Trilliant’s choice of 2.4-gigahertz wireless based on the 802.15.4 protocol underlying ZigBee, but with a modified IP-based networking architecture.
Both companies’ networks are built to “mesh” lots of meters’ radios together, to pass signals from one another in multiple paths to neighborhood-wide concentrator units that hook up with backhaul networks. Most utilities use public cellular or self-built fiber, copper and radio networks for backhaul nowadays. The utility-owned connections generally quit at major substations, however, leaving the grid between them and their customers dark. Cellular offers coverage for that gap, but not everywhere — and not at prices and quality of service levels that a utility can control. Trilliant offers to give utilities control and ownership over both, Miller said.
The latter point is particularly important to utilities, since most make money by asking regulators to approve rate increases to pay for capital expenses on their customers’ behalf. Operating expenses, like monthly rents paid to a cellular carrier, are harder for utilities to justify. Miller argued that Trilliant’s combo-network offering could pay itself off almost immediately in the savings utilities would find by firing their cellular carrier and/or replacing worn-out telephone lines and radios.
Trilliant can also offer better service, Miller said, down to splitting up the network into secure and separate tiers, guaranteeing super-fast channels for substation switches and reserving a slow trickle for hourly smart meter data — something Miller said cellular carriers would be hard-pressed to offer. It will be interesting to see the response from smart-grid targeted carriers such as AT&T (s T), Verizon (s VZ), Sprint (s S), Vodafone, BT (formerly British Telecom) and others, as well as startups like SmartSynch that have built their smart meter businesses on cellular. Smart meters don’t generate a ton of data, which means cellular carriers might not see a big upside to giving utilities expensive options like dedicated channels, Ben Schuman, analyst for Pacific Crest Securities, noted – “You need very specific service level agreements to ensure mission-critical service delivery, at very low price points,” he said.
What about Trilliant’s promise of a network fast enough to run the hardware of the grid itself (all that mission critical gear that ensures the grid doesn’t blow up)? There’s variety of companies offering similar services. Qualcomm (s QCOM) offers a turnkey wireless service that does some grid gear control work for Swiss electrical equipment giant ABB, and it and fellow grid giant Siemens (s SI) have multiple partnerships with cellular providers. Both “big five” smart meter maker Sensus and smart grid networking startup Arcadian Networks offer licensed spectrum for smart grid needs, which could give them a leg up in promising utilities that they’ll get critical messages through.
Tropos Networks, a municipal WiFi company that’s more recently focused on the smart grid, says it can offer capabilities similar to those Trilliant offers, and Silver Spring has been approved by Siemens for some substation gear networking. Of course, reliability and durability are also key factors when it comes to sticking lots of radios on electrical poles right next to major electromagnetic fields.
Then there’s WiMAX. WiMAX could offer the closest comparison to Trilliant’s SkyPilot technology, as far as its breadth of potential functions. Trilliant’s WAN can offer bandwidth of some 54 megabits-per-second, and latencies as low as 10 milliseconds, Miller said — nicely comparable to WiMAX.
Grid Net, a company that’s built software for WiMAX-enabled meters, along with a network that could control substation switches and support IP security cameras and utility crew’s mapping consoles in the field. General Electric and Alvarion are offering WiMAX gear to utilities such as Texas’s CenterPoint Energy and New England’s National Grid.
But WiMAX is also expensive, and Miller said Trilliant could offer a network at one-third to one-tenth the price, though that difference is bound to shrink as WiMAX chips get cheaper. Still, the few clients now using Trilliant’s WAN already had been working with SkyPilot when it was acquired, Miller said, and whether more choose future-forward functionality over the cheaper way to do what’s needed in the short term may well determine the fate of Trilliant’s new business model.
One of Trilliant’s main selling points could be its all-in-one system. Smart grid analyst Jesse Berst explained it as “A company that can offer a single console and guaranteed plug-and-play integration would have an advantage in convenience and speed of installation.” Schuman told us he expects a lot more mergers and acquisitions amongst smart grid communications and networking providers to give utilities a single network to operate their smart grid.