Connecting the smart grid via cellular networks has never been more popular, and the industry is taking notice. From Itron’s purchase of cellular smart meter company SmartSynch to Silver Spring Network’s integration of cellular capabilities in its newest generation of technology, 2012 has seen an increased move to leverage the lower costs -- and promised utility-grade quality -- of cellular technologies for the smart grid. 

Last week brought two more developments on the cellular smart grid front, from long-time utility communications player Ambient Corp. and smart grid startup Grid Net. Both come with promises of more utility customers and industry partners interested in leveraging the ubiquity of cellular networks for smart grid communications, though just how those partnerships will emerge is yet to be determined.

Ambient Lands Vodafone, Seeks Markets in “Europe and Beyond”

First, Ambient announced last week that its smart grid node -- a device that connects multiple communications technologies via a single platform -- has been certified to work on Vodafone’s network.

It’s the third carrier to give the seal of interoperability approval to the Newton, Mass.-based company. For years now, Ambient has been using Verizon’s network to connect smart grid nodes it’s deploying with Duke Energy, its chief customer. Ambient had deployed more than 100,000 nodes as of June, with the vast majority of them going to Duke.

But it’s also been eager to expand its customer base beyond Duke, and adding new cellular carriers to its stable of supported technologies could help.

Last month, Ambient announced similar certification to run on Sprint’s network, giving “north American utilities more choice and greater flexibility to fulfill their cellular communications requirements,” though it didn’t name any customers using Sprint.

Adding Vodafone to its list of cellular partners could open up new markets in “Europe and beyond,” Ambient noted, though it didn't name any new customers or projects in the announcement.

Of course, cellular is just one of the communications options Ambient is offering -- after all, its smart grid node is designed to allow multiple technologies to coexist in a single device, potentially offering utilities greater flexibility to mix and match as their smart grid deployments move forward.

Ambient’s nodes also support serial and Ethernet, Wi-Fi, radio frequency (RF), and powerline communications (PLC), the latter useful in connecting the PLC smart meters from Echelon that Duke is deploying in its Cincinnati, Ohio area deployment.

Cellular has long been a communications option for linking up interval meters for commercial and industrial customers, and it’s a primary technology for the “backhaul” networks that connect neighborhood-area smart meter networks to utility back offices.

But it hasn’t penetrated nearly as deeply in the field of connecting individual residential smart meters. SmartSynch, the main player in that space, had deployed only about 445,000 meters as of the end of 2011, out of the tens of millions of AMI systems networked across the United States, according to the Q1 GTM Scott AMI Market Tracker.

Grid Net Promises Secure, Cost-Effective 3G Smart Grid Support

What’s keeping utilities from hooking up their new smart meters like cellphones? The answer has been complicated. Until recently, cellular carriers’ costs have been seen as too high as compared to a utility-owned communications solution, but those costs have been coming down radically over the past few years, from dollars to pennies per meter.

Beyond cost, utilities have expressed concern that cellular carriers may not be able to support always-on connectivity during emergencies, or may not reach far-flung rural customers. Then, of course, there’s the security of the network to worry about.

Grid Net wants to assuage those concerns. Last week, the San Francisco-based startup launched a new version of its software, Grid Net Platform v2.7, to support 3G cellular smart grid deployments.

Grid Net was founded in 2006 on the idea of using WiMax as the network-of-networks for the smart grid, and has seen some early success in Australia building out WiMax-based smart meter networks with partner (and investor) General Electric. In 2010 it announced it was interoperable with Sprint’s 4G WiMax network, though the two haven’t announced any projects together since then.

But with the rival 4G technology Long Term Evolution (LTE) superseding WiMAX for the vast majority of the world’s cellular carriers, Grid Net has switched its focus to network management software to support a wide array of 3G- and 4G-based smart grid deployments. Last year it announced a partnership with SmartSynch, and in March it was named a partner, along with GE, Qualcomm and Verizon, in Michigan utility Consumers Energy’s deployment of 1.8 million residential smart meters connected via cellular.

Grid Net’s v2.7 release is meant to support the machine-to-machine (M2M) capabilities of cellular networks for smart grid applications, and includes such features as content distribution optimization and control, off-peak network utilization, differential state synchronization and configurable connectivity. In other words, it’s the kind of network optimization that is being attempted on a broader scale by such smart grid network management system players as Cisco, SK Telecom’s GridMaven and Proximetry Networks.

Grid Net also announced in June that it’s working with Australian broadband product developer NetComm Wireless, which will design and manufacture Grid Net-enabled 3G cellular communications cards. The two are working on Grid Net’s Australian deployments at first, but promise that they’ll be supporting new projects with new partners in other continents in the future.

As for where we’ll see Grid Net’s 3G cellular smart grid software being deployed next, the company is promising an announcement as early as August -- stay tuned for more developments.