The Smart Grid Via White Space, Courtesy of Google

While the debate continues about what network standards are best to run smart grids, here’s a wireless tech that you don’t often hear about: white space, the spectrum vacated by the switch from analog televisions to digital. Today Google and startup Spectrum Bridge are announcing that they have created the first ever smart grid deployment over white space, working with the utility Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative & Telecommunications in the tiny county of Plumas-Sierra in Northern California.

The big idea behind the untapped white space is that now that analog TV channel operators have moved to digital, very valuable, spectrum — nationwide and free to use because it is unlicensed (not owned by any company but guided by rules) — has been unleashed. Several years ago Google launched a campaign called Free The Airwaves in an effort to draw attention to the idea of using white space for wireless consumer broadband services.

But how to manage white space has been under debate at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for years, because there have been concerns that using white space for Internet services would interfere with other wireless devices like microphones in nearby frequencies. While a variety of companies like Spectrum Bridge (a True Venture portfolio company, see below), Microsoft and Motorola have managed to show that there is no problem with interference in white space, the FCC still has yet to give a final ruling on the subject.

The lack of an FCC ruling is why the world’s first-ever smart grid white space project is tiny and experimental. Spectrum Bridge, which has an experimental license with the FCC, first wired up the Plumas-Sierra utility with a white space network for its substations, enabling the utility to do substation automation. The network ended up working so well that Spectrum Bridge brought in Google to create a smart meter-style network using white space, where Google provided its in home energy management software PowerMeter and also brought in Energy Inc’s TED energy devices as the defacto smart meter.

Only a dozen TED devices were used, explained Spectrum Bridge’s VP of Business Development and Marketing, Neeraj Srivastava, to me, which shows just how small the network is. Spectrum Bridge can only create a commercial smart grid white spaces network when the FCC gives a final ruling (expected in Q3 of 2010, says Srivastava). Once that happens device and software makers can develop and sell white space-certified gear.

Why should you care about a smart grid via white space? It’s unlicensed spectrum (that’s free folks), is available in cities across the U.S., it’s completely untapped, and already has a lot of high profile backers like Google, Microsoft, Dell, and Motorola. For more of my thoughts on how the application of the smart grid can make white space a reality, check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

Spectrum Bridge is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

Image courtesy of Spectrum Bridge.


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