Trees are a growing problem with smart grid networks. Every day, they stretch toward the sun, expand, droop, lean, and sometimes fall down, changing the physical environment in which wireless networks operate. In some cases, if uncorrected, they can cause network failure.

The usual way to fix that is to put in another base station or concentrator, at additional cost. That’s because routing the network around changes in its environment is complicated, both to plan and then to deploy -- and once you’ve deployed, the trees have gone and grown and fallen again, wrecking your model.

That’s how Andres Carvallo, chief strategy officer at Proximetry, described the problem he’s hoping a new partnership with EDX Wireless will solve.

In simple terms, Eugene, Ore.-based EDX makes the tools to plan networks, and Proximetry makes the tools to manage them, Carvallo said in a Tuesday interview. The San Diego, Calif.-based startup’s software runs on its own, or via licensing partners like Cisco, which uses it for its smart grid network management offering, or CSC Corp. for a cloud-based network management service for utilities.

From there, Proximetry feeds all that data back into the EDX planning process, where it goes into a new cycle of modeling, he said. That keeps engineering and operations updated with fresh tools to make plans, fix problems, and catch the slow degradation of performance that would otherwise manifest in failure and expensive upgrades.

Carvallo saw the problems that neighborhood networks can experience firsthand during his stint as CIO of municipal utility Austin Energy, where crews trim some 400 linear miles of power line corridors per year, mostly to prevent branches from touching power lines and starting fires.

But it turns out that leafy green residential neighborhoods make for poor wireless connectivity as well. At Austin Energy, Carvallo estimated that up to 15 percent of network devices -- smart meters -- experienced failure at one point or another due to such changes as vegetation growth, new construction, public works projects and other environmental changes.

“Today, it’s all manual troubleshooting” to fix the problem, he said. “You have to send people there to figure it out.” Proximetry can optimize networks in a way that avoids having to reinforce troublesome networks with personal inspections and new gear, to the tune of 30 percent to 40 percent reductions in those network maintenance costs, he said. The software can also detect imminent failure for preventative maintenance, or notice when gear is running just fine and doesn't need to be replaced on a schedule, all for additional savings and operations benefits.

Proximetry isn’t alone in offering smart grid network management of some kind, of course. Telcordia, now owned by Ericsson, has a smart grid NMS offering. Another contender is GridMaven, a business unit of SK Telecom’s American subsidiary that launched in January, the same day as Cisco announced its Proximetry-backed network management system. This week, GridMaven announced it had finished deploying the network management system for South Korea’s Jeju Island, a national smart grid test bed that’s one of the biggest single deployments in the world.

GridMaven performs network fault  and performance monitoring and management, as well as performance monitoring and management, data storage and analysis, and correlation of different events across multiple networks.

Proximetry, on the other hand, is looking at increased automation with EDX, in terms of constantly updating the models that utilities use to plan and execute their projects.

“There’s got to be a closed loop, iterative cycle of design, planning operations, optimization, design, and so on and so on,” Carvallo said. Otherwise, every new project needs a team of engineers to solve all the new problems, he said.

Just how Proximetry’s technology compares to the likely contestants in the field of winning utility business remains to be seen. The big cellular carriers have their own network optimization underway to support the smart grid’s particular needs, for example. Smart grid services offerings from the likes of General Electric, SAIC and Lockheed Martin presumably have some way to tie their views together.

Proximetry was founded in 2005 and has been backed by Munich Venture Partners, Aeris Capital, Investec, and Rembrandt Venture Partners. It raised a $5 million Round A in 2007 and in June raised $792,000 of a planned $1.08 million round, according to a regulatory filing. It has also won grants from European government entities (PDF), and has offices in Poland and Germany.