General Electric and Grid Net have landed a big client to support their vision of a WiMax-enabled smart grid – Australian utility SP AusNet.

The utility plans to use the next-generation wireless technology to link about 680,000 household customers with smart meters, the companies announced Thursday.

But that's just the beginning of the ways the utility could use a high-speed, high-bandwidth WiMax network, General Electric says. Future uses could include linking distribution grid sensors and controls, rooftop solar panel monitors, "smart charging" systems for plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, and a host of other smart grid applications.

Thursday's announcement represents an important win for Grid Net, which has bet its future on WiMax for the smart grid. The San Francisco startup makes WiMax radios and network management software, and has been financially backed by GE Energy, as well as Intel (see Green Light posts here and here).

At SP AusNet, GE is providing the meter communications technology for the utility's network and delivering half of the smart meters, with Landis+Gyr providing the other half. Motorola will provide the communications infrastructure.

As for GridNet, its PolicyNet software will manage the meters, controllers, switches and other devices throughout SP AusNet's smart grid network, the companies said.

That software is made to work with GE WiMax-enabled smart meters and routers, and Grid Net said Thursday that GE planned to make the combination widely available for other utilities.

"GE's the one that's spearheading those efforts and bringing our products to market," Grid Net spokeswoman Judith McGarry said Thursday.

Australia has emerged as a popular testing ground for WiMax smart grid networks. GE and Grid Net have been piloting their WiMax systems at SP AusNet and utility Energy Australia, McGarry said in March (see GE Offers WiMax Smart Meter Solution).

In North America, Texas-based CenterPoint Energy is installing WiMax radios made by General Electric, though its using them for so-called "backhaul" networks to connect utility offices with concentrator devices, which communicate with smart meter networks through a separate system.

Other utilities are looking at WiMax for smart grid deployments. San Diego Gas & Electric has said it will consider WiMax for covering some of the harder-to-reach portions of its service territory, if it can get a $30 million Department of Energy stimulus grant to support the project (see Green Light post).

While most North American smart meters are being linked with proprietary radios that use unlicensed spectrum at present, McGarry said that standards-based WiMax could start to see some big uptake (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Smart Meter Wish Lists).

Specifically, some observers have said that WiMax may be better suited than RF mesh for distribution automation functions that require a very low latency – that is, faster – network.

However, mesh networking providers like Silver Spring Networks and Trilliant are busy getting their systems certified to work with distribution substation automation gear and similar systems from providers like Siemens and ABB (see Green Light post).

Beyond that, PolicyNet offers a host of services like outage management, customer billing and pricing delivery, linking home energy management systems in real time, and other functions, McGarry said. Of course, many other smart meter networking technologies also offer those functions.

McGarry said she couldn't talk about what other utilities GE and Grid Net were working with. But she did mention that Cisco Systems, one of Grid Net's PolicyNet partners, was "a great collaboration partner" in seeking to expand WiMax to other utility deployments (see Cisco Gets Into German Homes With Yellostrom and IBM, Cisco Look to Tie Up Smart Grid Partners).

And, while utilities publicly using WiMax have so far opted to build and own their own networks by using public WiMax networks from providers like Clearwire in the United States and Unwired in Australia could be another option, McGarry said.

That's a similar pitch being made by a host of public cellular providers that want to "rent" their networks to utilities to link smart meters and other smart grid systems (see Sprint Stakes Smart Grid Claim, Qualcomm's Machine-to-Machine Smart Grid Moves and Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cellphone).

The question of whether to own or rent a smart grid communications network – as well as basic matters of the cost per meter of systems ranging from RF mesh to WiMax – will continue to loom large for utilities as they lay out future plans to link smart meters and other smart grid systems.

In that shifting set of equations, a standards-based technology like WiMax could become more valuable as time goes on, McGarry suggested – especially given the increased focus on interoperability and standards that the U.S. federal government is seeking to apply to the industry (see Smart Grid Standards Roadmap Unveiled).

Interact with smart grid industry visionaries from North American utilities, innovative hardware and software vendors and leading industry consortiums at The Networked Grid on November 4 in San Francisco.