Hughes Network Systems is the latest communications provider to see gold in the growing field of giving utilities the communication tools they need to make the smart grid a reality.

The leader in broadband satellite networks – and a recent entrant into land-based broadband communications – has launched a new line of business aimed at capturing utilities' growing need for fast, secure and reliable communications.

The Germantown, Md.-based company now has a half-dozen pilot projects underway with utilities, said Doug Medina, senior director of marketing, though he wouldn't name them.

It isn't a new field to Hughes, which has been serving a few utilities for years by providing satellite links to out-of-the-way substations, similar to the service it offers oil companies, he said.

But with utilities under increasing pressure to upgrade the grid by adding sensors and controls – and all of them needing reliable and secure communications – Hughes sees a growing market in the power business, Medina said.

Then, of course, "When you tie in the whole broadband stimulus package – about $11 billion in grants and loans for smart grid initiatives, and lo and behold, we're seeing new demand," he said.

That's a common sentiment out there among current and would-be providers of communications services for the nation's utilities.

While much of the attention on utility "smart grid" efforts so far have focused on the two-way communicating smart meters they're installing at homes and businesses around the country, efforts to bring similar communications and control capabilities to the "upstream" sections of the grid are also underway (see A Feeling and Thinking Distribution Grid and GE Offers WiMax Smart Grid Solution).

So far, utilities have looked to a broad array of communications technologies, from fiber-optic to cellular and private wireless networks. While many utilities are choosing to build their own networks, others are looking to wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon for their services (see this Green Light post).

Hughes is among a number of large industrial companies looking into the smart grid field, noted John Quealy, an analyst with research firm Canaccord Adams. Lockheed Martin has developed a control dashboard for grid operations, and IBM has a number of smart grid-related projects underway (see IBM Tests Smart Charging in Denmark and IBM Brings Smart Meters to Malta). 

Hughes' entry, while not a "game-changer," does offer some potential benefits to utility customers, said Marcus Torchia, research manager of intelligent grid strategies for IDC company Energy Insights.

Utilities can go out and buy the managed service, satellite broadband connections and range of other communications, but "Hughes is taking an interesting approach and wrapping it all together," he said.

Hughes can also offer long-time experience gained through work in the oil industry in integrating decades-old equipment into its Internet protocol (IP)-based network, Medina added. A growing chorus of regulators and industry groups are calling for utilities to use open standards in their smart grid deployments (see Smart Grid: A Matter of Standards and this Green Light post).

The big question remains price, Eric Dresselhuys, vice president of markets at smart meter networking provider Silver Spring Networks, noted in an email.

"Satellite systems do avoid some of the issues cellular and other terrestrial systems could have," he said. "Pricing has, in the past, been an issue with satellite, but if they've licked that, they might get some play."

Rural areas might be particularly well suited for satellite communications, he added. Others are looking to broadband over powerline, which carries data over transmission lines, as an alternate way to reach remote rural areas (see Broadband Over Powerline Brings Smart Grid to Rural Areas).