Smart meter maker Echelon Corp. (NSDQ: ELON) and cellular provider T-Mobile USA have joined up to compete for smart meter contracts in the United States – the latest such partnership seeking to change the way most smart meters communicate in the United States.

Under the partnership announced Thursday, San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon will install cellular radio modules in its smart meters, which communicate with one another over power lines. Those radio modules will then use T-Mobile's network to transmit data to and from utilities.

That's a common means of linking smart meters and utilities in Europe, where Deutsche Telekom AG, the parent company of T-Mobile, and other providers compete with other wireless systems like WiMax or fiber optic networks to serve the purpose.

U.S. utilities also use cellular networks, but mostly to link "concentrators" collecting data from hundreds or thousands of meters to utility "backhaul" networks (see Green Light post).

But in the Unites States so far, most utilities have opted for installing their own smart meter communications at the local, or "neighborhood," network level. Millions of those meters will be installed over the coming years, often using wireless mesh networking from meter makers like Itron and Landis+Gyr or startups such as Silver Spring Networks and Trilliant.

So far, the only other cellular-smart meter partnership targeting the U.S. residential smart meter market is that between AT&T and SmartSynch launched last month (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cellphone). That partnership landed its first 10,000-meter utility deal with Texas-New Mexico Power Co. last week (see Green Light post)

While the two have been linking smart meters at commercial and industrial sites for years, so far most U.S. utilities have opted for owning their own networks for residential smart meters.

Why? Well, it could be because U.S. cellular carriers haven't been offering utilities service at competitive prices, suggested Jeff Lund, Echelon's vice president of business development.

But Lund believes that's going to change – and that Echelon's smart meter business, called Networked Energy Services, could offer additional advantages to help it compete in North America.

That system is based on smart meters that communicate data over power lines to concentrators that use IP-based communications networks of one kind or another. Echelon has 1.5 million meters installed in Europe and contracts to install millions more, and provides power line networking to a 30 million smart meter system for Italian utility Enel.

But so far, Echelon's only North American smart meter contract is with Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy for a project in Cincinnati that has seen about 60,000 meters deployed so far. That project will use Echelon's power line networking to bring data to concentrators that will then transmit data using a variety of cellular, wireless and fiber networks – Duke hasn't specified which vendors yet.

Power-line networking has not taken off in North America. One reason, industry observers say, is that transformers interfere with power-line signals, requiring expensive repeaters to bypass them. North American distribution grids tend to serve fewer homes per transformer than those in Europe, which means more repeaters and higher costs (see Silver Spring Heads Down Under).

Echelon's partnership with T-Mobile takes that into account, Lund said. The system will involve multiple "mini-networks" of meters -- each "behind" an individual transformer -- that will communicate with each other over power lines. At least one meter per mini-network will contain a cellular radio to communicate data back to the utility, he said.

Lund contended that the cost per meter and bandwidth available will match those of radio frequency mesh networks being deployed by such U.S. utilities as Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison, Florida Power & Light, CenterPoint Energy, Oncor and Pepco Holdings Inc., among others.

Lund added that Echelon meters had built-in power quality sensing functions that many other smart meters on the market now lack. Being able to sense variations in frequency and voltage can help utilities save money by balancing output from the utility with the usage patterns of homes, Echelon CTO Bob Dolin told Greentech Media earlier this month (see Notes From a National Smart Grid Experiment).

Lund wouldn't say which utilities Echelon may be courting with its new T-Mobile partnership. The company also makes technology used in building automation, and has hopes of integrating that business with its networked energy services business (see Echelon Beefs Up LonWorks).

Echelon also networks streetlights for several utilities in the United States and Europe (see Will Smart Grid See a Push for Power-Line Networking?). Its most recent streetlight project, announced Monday, is with San Jose. Echelon will network about 125 streetlights to allow the city to control brightness, strobe lights to guide emergency responders to accident scenes, and other functions.

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