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Tropos Gets to the Point-to-Multipoint for the Smart Grid

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Can the municipal Wi-Fi concept make the leap to all-inclusive smart grid communications solution? Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Tropos Networks is trying it out, and unveiled new products and networking architecture Monday morning for everything from super-fast distribution automation gear to millions of smart meters.

Tropos’ GridCom 2.0 includes mesh, point-to-point, and point-to-multipoint radios for a range of different bandwidths, including those commonly used for the wireless standard WiMAX. The system is primarily focused on distribution automation — the sensing and control of switches, transformers, capacitor banks and other gear that actually controls grid power.

While Tropos has some large-scale contracts outside the U.S. (including a 1.5 million meter-reading system in Abu Dhabi), its U.S. business consists primarily of municipal utilities like Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, Calif. These newly announced products sound similar to systems that Tropos has been installing for Spokane, Wash.-based, investor-owned utility Avista (s AVA) since last year. But Tropos says its new products are taking a more hands-on approach to automating the grid, complete with the new point-to-multipoint, low-latency networks to support it.

The $42-million Spokane Smart Circuits project and the $38-million Smart Grid Demonstration Project in Pullman, Wash., are aimed at squeezing at least five percent greater efficiency out of the grid. But beyond that, Tropos sees itself laying a permanent communications infrastructure for smart grid systems to come, Tropos CTO Narasimha Chari said Monday.

Beyond Avista, Tropos is working with a few other, as-yet undisclosed, investor-owned utilities that need networks that work in environments from rural to suburban to urban, Chari said. That explains the goal of providing both low-power mesh and long-range point-to-multipoint on a single platform.

Tropos isn’t alone in trying to pull together a network-of-networks for the smart grid. Mesh networking startup Trilliant bought former municipal Wi-Fi startup SkyPilot for its long-range point-to-point technology, and Arcadian Networks is offering a similarly broad-ranging service over its privately owned spectrum in Minnesota and other states.

Still, most of today’s smart grid networking universe is split up between the short-range, low-power, mesh networks that connect millions of smart meters from the likes of Silver Spring Networks, Sensus, Itron (s ITRI) or Landis+Gyr, and the high-bandwidth backhaul networks to carry that collected information to utility systems

The latter include cellular carriers including AT&T (s T), Verizon (s VZ), Sprint (s s) and T-Mobile and startups like SmartSynch and Grid Net that partner with them, though utilities are running their own broadband backhaul systems built with gear from the likes of General Electric (s GE) and Motorola (s msi).

Just how scalable such mix-and-match networks will end up being is another matter. Pike Research predicts a $4.9 billion business by 2016 in smart grid networks, up from $2.2 billion in 2009, giving some room for growth. But Pike also predicts a $4.8 billion market by 2016 for utility IT consulting and management services to manage all these new high-tech tools. Networks that can grab that piece of the smart grid pie at low enough cost could profit.

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Image courtesy of Topiax via Creative Commons license.