Verizon Plays Catch Up to AT&T’s Smart Grid Plans


All the phone companies have shown interest in selling space on their networks for utility smart grid deployments, but some have been more aggressive than others. This week, Verizon (s VZ) announced it has partnered with smart grid player SmartSynch for a 3G smart grid network solution for utilities’ residential deployment plans. The partnership news comes about a year after AT&T (s T) first announced a trial of a cellular-based smart grid with its network and SmartSynch’s technology.

While Verizon might be a bit slower moving than AT&T in the smart grid space, the move shows how the competition between the phone companies, which is usually reserved for cell phones and mobile apps, has now solidly invaded the smart grid. Verizon Wireless started touting its smart grid network product for utilities in partnership with Itron (s ITRI), Ambient Corp. and Qualcomm (s qcom) just earlier this year.

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.

Verizon’s latest partnership with SmartSynch is about its 3G network, which was built years ago, but all the carriers are also looking to sell the upcoming next-generation wireless broadband networks, or 4G, for smart grid services, too. While Verizon and AT&T’s 4G networks are just getting rolled out, Mark Madden, Alcatel-Lucent’s VP of energy markets for Americas, told me in an interview last month that he thinks telco’s 4G networks (which are most often based on the technology LTE) will eventually be the network of choice for the smart grid.

That’s because LTE can prioritize certain traffic, and can work with both mobile and fixed networks, Madden said. Eventually he thinks  utilities will turn to LTE for the smart grid. “It’s a perfect fit,” says Madden. Verizon has said it plans to use its 4G LTE network for the smart grid, too.

Working with cellular companies means piggy-backing on their networks for the smart grid, but utilities are also opting to build their own networks. Owning the network gives the utility control and avoids having to share bandwidth with other telecom customers. In addition, regulated utilities get to earn profits on capital expenses like building their own networks. However, it’s still up for debate what’s a better option: build or buy.

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