AT&T vs. Verizon, Smart Grid Edition

The battle over subscribers and market share between telecom giants AT&T (s T) and Verizon (s VZ) has now solidly moved onto the smart grid. The latest development from AT&T, which has been the most aggressive about trying to rent space on its wireless network to utilities for smart grid projects, comes this morning in the form of a partnership with smart grid firm Current Group.

Current largely provides the sensors that monitor different conditions on the electrical network, like voltage and current, as well as the software that processes the sensor information for the utility customer. AT&T says it will resell Current’s distribution monitoring product as part of its wireless smart grid portfolio.

Earlier this month Verizon Wireless was touting its smart grid network product for utilities in partnership with Itron (s ITRI), Ambient Corp. and Qualcomm (s QCOM). Verizon has notably formed new partnerships and increased its smart grid efforts recently.

For the two phone companies, the smart grid is all about using their wireless networks to sell “machine-to-machine” services. So-called M2M services run data over networks used by devices, but they don’t include consumer customers and cell phone accounts (see our recent report on machine-to-machine networks at GigaOM Pro, subscription required). Consumers can be fickle when it comes to ditching their cell phone companies, resulting in churn and continuous upkeep. A smart grid utility deal, or a machine-to-machine service, in contrast, can be relatively low maintenance and can also diversify traffic on cellular networks.

Utilities such as Texas-New Mexico Power (TNMP) choose to work with cell phone companies because they can rent space on an existing cell network and as such don’t have to put up the capital expense of building out and operating their own. Cellular operators can also offer utilities the tech advances of their networks, on which they’ve spent billions of dollars. For example, Verizon plans to launch its faster 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless network nationally, which it says can be used for the smart grid.

Companies have also been building businesses based on the cellular smart grid ecosystem. Startup Smart Synch has been working with AT&T and T-Mobile to offer utilities cellular smart grid networks, and network builder Silver Spring Networks announced a partnership with AT&T in December.

However, utilities are also opting to build their own smart grid networks. Owning the network gives the utility control and allows it to avoid having to share bandwidth with other telecom customers. In addition, regulated utilities get to earn profits on capital expenses like building their own networks.

For more research on M2M and the smart grid check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

M2M Is Taking Off From the Kindle to the Smart Grid

Image courtesy of AT&T.