Google, the world’s richest mapmaker (among other things), has just thrown its hat in the smart grid ring with General Electric, in a new partnership aimed at seizing ground in the field of next-generation geospatial tools for oil, gas, energy and telecommunications.

The two companies announced Tuesday morning that they’re integrating Google Maps data into GE's Smallworld electrical, telecommunications and gas applications -- a set of geospatial analytics tools and software that GE has adapted for Web, mobile and desktop use. On the smart grid front, GE is building Google’s mapping content into its grid distribution management system (DMS) and outage management system (OMS), and it’s also tapping Google’s Android platform to augment its existing mobile products, mainly to give them better, more information-rich maps.

This amounts to a major announcement in the relatively small world of utility geospatial information system (GIS) vendors, to be sure. Today’s market is dominated by such players as Esri and Intergraph, in-house products from grid giants like Alstom and Siemens, and up-and-comers like startup Space-Time Insight.

GTM Research has predicted U.S. utilities will spend between $110 million and $180 million on GIS upgrades and replacements from 2010 to 2015, with projects ranging from the high end, such as Southern California Edison’s $71 million upgrade of its 10-year-old GIS, to a few hundred thousand dollars for small municipal or cooperative utilities.

“Google's rich mapping content will form an integral part of GE's solutions, strengthening the existing geospatial capabilities of GE's Smallworld products by providing out-of-the-box base mapping as well as visualization and analytics capabilities,” according to the announcement.

That applies to network management as well. GE and Google say they can “design and model complex network infrastructures while supporting asset management lifecycle processes,” all deliverable for uses like business intelligence, engineering, schematics, and “corridor management” and “enterprise gateway” solutions.

We’ve seen a growing interest amongst utilities and major smart grid vendors for tools to help them manage complex and disparate communications networks. Companies in the space include Telcordia (now part of Ericsson), SK Telecom’s GridMaven, Cisco, and startup Proximetry Networks, which just landed a partnership with Siemens, a competitor to GE. In the case of GE and Google, it’s unclear just how their new offering compares to NMS providers like these, or to individual AMI and DA communications vendors that do their own network management, however.

Beyond the announcement itself, it’s important to note that GE has a major initiative in the machine-to-machine space, or what CEO Jeff Immelt has dubbed the “Industrial Internet,” which extends to the smart grid as well. GE launched a new suite of analytics capabilities for its Grid IQ Insight platform last month focused on outage detection, prediction and prevention, and also announced a partnership with wireless networking startup On-Ramp Wireless for GE’s first-ever foray into smart meter networking. Both of those projects could use Google’s mapping smarts and mobile flexibility as well.