Notice to utilities looking for one company to provide an end-to-end smart grid wireless communications network – Trilliant is buying its way into your hearts.
The Redwood City, Calif.-based smart meter networking startup announced Thursday that it has acquired SkyPilot Networks, which has developed a long-range, broadband wireless mesh technology based on WiFi but with far greater range – up to 10 miles or more.
That's a natural complement to Trilliant's shorter-range "SecureMesh" technology, based on the same 802.15.4 protocol underlying ZigBee, that it uses to link meters and utility communications collections points, said Eric Miller, Trilliant's chief solutions officer.
U.S. smart meter deployments have primarily used lower-power, lower-bandwidth (and lower cost) wireless or powerline carrier technologies to link smart meters to each other in a neighborhood area network. Trilliant and rival startup Silver Spring Networks, as well as proprietary systems from meter makers like Itron and Landis+Gyr, fit that bill (see Smart Grid: A Matter of Standards).
Those networks are typically connected to collection points that use a variety of higher-bandwidth communications – fiber, cellular, satellite, WiMax – provided by a different set of companies (see Hughes Offers Utility Communications and GE Offers WiMax Smart Meter Solution).
The Trilliant-SkyPilot combination will bring both into one integrated architecture, soon to be supported by an integrated network management system and user interface, Miller said. The two have already integrated their technologies in a project with Ontario, Canada municipal utility Milton Hydro, as well as another unnamed utility, he said.
Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Miller and Brian Jenkins, marketing vice president for SkyPilot, said the two would continue to offer their technologies as stand-alone products as well as a complete package.
But when it comes to SkyPilot's patented, standards-based technology, Miller said it could outcompete WiMax in terms of cost and WiFi in terms of range – all over a network owned by the utility, rather than by another provider.
"With all the focus on security and standards, a lot of utilities are saying, this is such a critical component of the overall grid, we can't be running on whatever digital cellular happen to be running on that day," he said.
That's a less-than-subtle jab at the idea of using public cellular networks to carry smart grid data, which is on offer from smart meter makers like SmartSynch and Echelon (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cell Phone and Echelon, T-Mobile Team on Smart Meter Contracts).
Miller suggested that utilities also may prefer to keep their networks private, rather than using one that's connected to the Internet in some way, which has been suggested as a possible solution for linking utilities and their customers (see Verizon to Add Energy Management to FiOS and A Broadband Smart Grid?).
Those are choices that utilities will be grappling with in the months and years to come, said Clint Wheelock, managing director at Pike Research.
"In most cases, it's probably going to be more of an either-or decision on the part of a utility," he said. While using cellular networks has so far been seen as a more expensive option, it's likely that those prices will come down as cellular carriers make a concerted effort to win smart grid business, he said.
But for those that choose to build their own network, Trilliant's acquisition of SkyPilot could well give the company a competitive edge, he said.
"It increased the capabilities and reduces the cost of a traditional RF mesh network," he said. SkyPilot's use of standard WiFi chip sets helps keep costs down, while its patented advancedl antenna technology gives it the key advantage of longer range, he added.
One key competitor that might be eyeing the Trilliant-SkyPilot mash-up with some trepidation is Silver Spring Networks. The Redwood City, Calif.-based startup has deals with utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Florida Power & Light, American Electric Power and expects to see about two million meters with its technology deployed by the end of 2009 (see Green Light post). It has raised about $167 million since 2007, including $90 million since October (see Green Light post).
Trilliant, on the other hand, has secured contracts for more than three million meters and had deployed about one million devices as of January, and is working with about 200 utilities, including a high-profile project with Ontario, Canada's Hydro One. It has raised about $100 million from investors including Mission Point Capital Partners and Zouk Ventures (see Green Light post).
Santa Clara, Calif.-based SkyPilot's background is in wireless networks for municipalities and rural areas, with about 500 deployments in more than 50 countries.
Trilliant's acquisition could well be the start of "a wave of partnerships and acquisitions," with Silver Spring a likely contender, said Jesse Berst, head of smart grid consulting firm Global Smart Energy. "I think all the major players – all the venture-backed ones that have a lot of money left – will be looking."
That could include SmartSynch, which could seek to make cellular an alternate end-to-end communications architecture, he said (see Acquisitions in Smart Grid: Get Used to It).
Startups aren't the only likely shoppers, he added. Cisco Systems will probably be looking for companies to acquire or partner with to meet its goal of providing a broad range of smart grid networking services. Other IT giants entering the field may be doing the same (see Cisco Wants to Be Everywhere in the Smart Grid and Oracle Launches "End-to-End" Smart Grid Software).
As for what Trilliant and SkyPilot can offer, Berst said he hasn't seen any exact parallels, although Aclara's combination of RF mesh and low-bandwidth powerline carrier technology could offer a similar complete solution.