Grid Net, the smart grid networking startup that once championed WiMAX as the communications platform of the future, has just landed its first big U.S. project to manage smart meters that connect like cellphones.

The project involves Michigan utility Consumers Energy, which is deploying 1.8 million smart meters in what could become the country’s biggest cellular-backed, residential smart meter network. SmartSynch landed the project in September and Wednesday announced a list of partners that include Grid Net, GE Energy, Qualcomm and Verizon Wireless. (Itron bought SmartSynch last month, but won’t be supplying meters to the deployment.)

Grid Net, founded in 2006 by Cisco and Oracle alum Ray Bell, concentrated on WiMAX as the preferred network for the grid, using the 4G technology to link meters from investor GE in a number of good-sized deployments in Australia. But starting around 2010, Grid Net started supporting a broader set of wireless technologies, including LTE and cellular -- a move that turned a cellular smart meter champion like SmartSynch into a partner, rather than a competitor, late last year.

But it’s Grid Net’s software management system that’s at the core of the Consumers Energy announcement. That's because it's built to manage lots of IP-addressable end points -- smart meters, sensors, grid control devices, concentrator nodes, etc. -- connected in a more-or-less real-time network talking to a central controller.

That’s a lot different than the methods used to manage mesh radio-connected smart meter networks, which require patience while data bounces from one meter to another, working its way back to utility backhaul points. It’s also different than handing a lot of raw smart meter data to a telecommunications provider and asking it to manage the connection to the utility at the other end.

Every smart meter vendor has its own network management system, and startups like Silver Spring Networks and Trilliant, along with the big meter makers, are busy adding new cellular features and functionality. Utilities have used public cellular networks for commercial and industrial meters for decades, of course. But most of the millions of residential smart meters being deployed in North America today make their own mesh networks.

Grid Net will provide the networking and metering software for Consumers Energy, while GE Energy will provide the meters -- a standard partnership for the two. Communications will be handled by Qualcomm’s mobile broadband chipsets, and Verizon Wireless is the network. Qualcomm and Verizon have been doing M2M work together since 2009, and Qualcomm and SmartSynch have been partners since February 2011.

Grid Net launched PolicyNet on the U.S. market back in 2010, so we’ve been waiting awhile to hear of customer wins. Consumers Energy is a big one. The question seems to be, will we see this five-partner combo deploy elsewhere around the country? While cellular carriers have been dropping prices and agreeing to utility service terms to win more smart meter business, questions still remain on whether they’re up to the task of keeping the network up during a storm, flood or other natural disaster -- or, more to the point, during a blackout.

Tags: cisco, demand response, ge, general electric, investors, qualcomm, silver spring networks, smart grid, smart meter, smartsynch, trilliant, utilities, venture capital, verizon