In the early days of the smart grid, companies thought about connectivity from a device point of view. They would focus on bringing intelligence to a single device -- like a meter -- and develop a control platform for that discrete piece of equipment. That's not exactly a recipe for a connected world.

The focus on vertical technology platforms has given way to the horizontal approach where each device is considered within an open platform to create a true communications ecosystem, expanding applications far beyond the electric grid and into the real world.

This "internet of things" concept is now a driving force behind how technology providers and networking companies see the world.

Or, as Silver Spring Networks calls it somewhat jokingly, the "internet of important things." For Silver Spring, which is increasingly applying its software to smart city applications, that means focusing on all the devices that make our lives move: streetlights, traffic controls, buildings and emergency response systems.

"The industry once had this very narrow view on one-off applications. Now there's a much broader shift beyond one application to a world where anything that distributes and consumes energy is going to get connected up," said Eric Dresselhuys, Silver Spring's executive vice president of global development, in an interview. "Our business model has been to enable the overall ecosystem, and we’re trying to helping build the smart city ecosystem of partners on our platform."

In recent months, Silver Spring has signed partnerships with the city of San Antonio and Masers Energy, a company building a smart city project in Malaysia, to expand connectivity beyond the electric grid and into other technology nodes within the city.

But there needs to be a technology starting point. And just as advanced meters are leveraging broader smart grid applications, LED streetlights are an attractive entry point for building broad connectivity in the urban landscape.

This week, Silver Spring expanded its partner list by teaming up with the Canadian company LED Roadway Lighting to integrate a networking platform into streetlights. LED Roadway Lighting has been working for five years on a product that features high-quality drivers and a long, narrow lighting profile, which the company says improves reliability and reduces the number of light poles by 15 percent to 20 percent. 

Adding intelligence to the platform will make it even better. Silver Spring and LED Roadway haven't come out with a networked product quite yet, but the companies say the combination would reduce energy costs by up to 65 percent over high-pressure sodium lights and cut maintenance by up to 90 percent. Other similar networking partnerships have substantially boosted lighting efficiency and reduced the cost of maintenance, although not by the amount suggested by Silver Spring.

As controllable LEDs make gains in the streetlight market, layering a communications platform on top of the product is a natural choice. As a result, streetlights are becoming a way for companies like ABB, Echelon, Sensus and Silver Spring Networks to expand their smart grid offerings into other pieces of urban infrastructure. It's also getting municipalities more comfortable with the applications for controlling their lights, traffic signals, and emergency alert systems.

"Once the city opens up to the networked platform, the marginal connectivity of other devices is low," said Dresselhuys. "It’s a super exciting space, and the business opportunity keeps expanding."

The market for smart streetlights is only in its infancy. There were only a couple hundred fully integrated systems and about a half million communications nodes shipped shipped globally last year. However, Pike Research expects the number of systems to climb to 1,100 and the number of communications nodes to climb to 4.8 million in 2020.