How open should the smart grid's communication and networking infrastructure be? And what's the definition of "open" communications standards in the first place?

As a host of utilities and smart meter companies turn to companies to help them network millions of smart meters being deployed across the nation, these questions are coming to the fore (see Smart Meter Installations Grow Nearly Fivefold).

Radio frequency mesh networks like those provided by smart meter makers Itron, Elster, Landis+Gyr and others – as well as the Internet protocol (IP)-based system from startup Silver Spring Networks – are coming under indirect criticism for their lack of openness by companies like Trilliant, which provide communications based on the ZigBee standard, or SmartSynch, which uses cellular networks from providers like AT&T.

At the same time, Eka Systems, which has developed its own smart meter data communications and networking technology, says that companies like Silver Spring Networks that have built IP networking systems are settling on a standard that, while open, will lead to problems with increasingly complex data communications needs to come in the future.

Who's right – or perhaps more importantly, which point of view utilities and regulators adopt – could play a big role in who succeeds in the emerging smart grid industry.

The subject is a hotly discussed one at the DistribuTech conference in San Diego this week, when companies spanning the reach of the smart grid meet to ply their wares and state the case for their technologies (see DistribuTech Shines Spotlight on Smart Grid).

Silver Spring: RF Mesh and IP

Take Silver Spring Networks, which provides communication networks for smart meter systems now being deployed by utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Florida Power & Light, American Electric Power and others, fueled by a $75 million investment led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (see Silver Spring Grabs $75M).

The Redwood City, Calif.-based company installs smart meter interface cards with frequency-hopping radios that mesh together in a 900-megahertz frequency range, much like technology from big smart meter makers.

But Silver Spring singles out its use of Internet protocol throughout the stages of its network to differentiate itself from those others.

"We see this as much as the Internet was conceived... it's capable of evolving and supported by so many parties as an open standard," said John O'Farrell, executive vice president of business development.

But the fact that Silver Spring still uses its own RF mesh technology for the physical transmission of data lays it open to criticism from other companies that have come up with different means of getting that done.

Trilliant's "Beefed-Up ZigBee"

Redwood City, Calif.-based Trilliant is one of them. The company has deals with about 100 utilities, including Ontario, Canada's Hydro One, and in August landed $40 million from MissionPoint Partners and zouk ventures.

Trilliant builds a "multi-tiered network" that uses a beefed-up version of the 802.15.4 wireless standard – which the ZigBee protocol uses for in-home equipment – as its primary home-to-utility concentrator point communications technology. That "SecureMesh" system then links to concentrators that can communicate to utilities via a variety of public and private wireless networks, said Eric Miller, chief solutions officer.

So what's that mean? Theoretically, Trilliant's physical communications system could be open to other equipment using its enhanced ZigBee-based gear, CEO Bill Vogel said during a recent meeting with reporters.

Silver Spring, on the other hand, "is open standard, but the last piece – the physical equipment – is proprietary," he said. "We embrace broader, more holistic stuff."

That's led Trilliant to push for Congress to include requirements for open standards-based systems in any federal support for smart grid technology deployment, Vogel said.

"Everything needs to be industry standards. Everything needs to be plug-and-play," he said.

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Tags: att, distributech, eka, ester, itron, landisgyr, silverspring, smartgrid, zigbee