On Tuesday, Qualcomm launched a joint venture with Verizon Wireless to bring new "machine-to-machine" devices and services to market, as part of what Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs insisted was a major push by the San Diego-based company into the "Internet of things."
In Qualcomm's case, those things include medical devices and good old-fashioned phones and other handheld consumer electronics - as well as electricity grid distribution equipment built by Swiss giant ABB, hydrogen fueling stations by Air Products, water treatments monitoring systems from Siemens, and systems to monitor air compressors from Gardner Denver.
That puts Qualcomm into the smart grid space – a move that Verizon has also made lately, albeit in a less overt manner than some of its competitors (see Qualcomm, Verizon Plan Smart Grid Services as Part of New JV and this Green Light post).
Now the question for smart grid rivals is whether Tuesday's joint venture represents a casting-off of a line of business outside of Qualcomm's main line of providing chipsets and technology for wireless platforms, or a seeding of the market for millions more of those chipsets to come.
At the heart of the new joint venture is Qualcomm global smart services, a name for the business Qualcomm took over when it bought nPhase, a pioneer in the business of getting machines to talk to each other over wireless networks, in November 2006.
Steve Pazol, vice president of Qualcomm global smart services, will lead the joint venture, which will be owned equally by Qualcomm and Verizon Wireless. But the two companies did not say how much money they were putting into it.
Nor would Pazol, speaking at Qualcomm's Tuesday Smart Services Leadership Summit event where the new joint venture was announced, say much about what new smart grid-related projects it would be taking on, other than to say some more were in the pipeline.
But it's not a new line of business for Qualcomm. Some the smart grid-related projects it's involved in have been underway for years.
In the case of Siemens, the industrial giant has been selling Qualcomm-designed web-based communications systems for water treatment systems since January 2008, said Erich Hoefferle, control system engineering manager for Siemens Water Technologies Corp.
Qualcomm designed the software, manages the wireless data communications via other providers and hosts the application for the services, used both by Siemens business units and third-party customers, he said.
Essentially, it's a cheaper alternative for those that don't wish to build and maintain their own systems for monitoring water equipment – about one-eighth the cost, he estimated.
That proposition – save big on capital costs and maintenance in exchange for paying a monthly fee for service – is much the same as one made by telecommunications providers seeking to serve as the backbone for communications between smart meters and other smart grid equipment and utilities (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cell Phone and Echelon, T-Mobile Team on Smart Meter Contracts).
Still, most North American utilities have chosen to build and operate their own networks thus far (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Wish Lists).
Among the reasons cited by analysts are concerns over pricing of contracts to use carriers' networks, as well as the possible limitation of cellular networks to reach out-of-the-way parts of the electricity grid.
But in ABB's case, Qualcomm's communication system for linking the Swiss electricity systems maker's distribution grid devices has been working quite well in places that cellular coverage might not be expected to, said Herb Rogers, director of high voltage service for North America in ABB's power technologies division.
Like Siemens, ABB leaves to Qualcomm the software, hosting and management of the contracts with different carriers, and has been satisfied with the performance over the three years or so it's been set up, he said. AT&T and distribution grid device maker Cooper Power Systems are pursuing a similar partnership (see AT&T Links Cooper Power Systems' Smart Grid Devices).
Still, it's only one of several different modes of communication ABB uses, Rogers said. That includes work ABB is doing to link its devices using the wireless mesh networking technology of Silver Spring Networks, a startup that has sold its devices to a number of utilities doing large-scale smart meter deployments.
Whether Qualcomm and the host of public wireless network providers will gain traction in the growing North American smart grid remains to be seen.
The same goes for whether or not Qualcomm's new relationship with Verizon may stifle its work with other carriers. Both companies insisted Tuesday that they would be open to provide services to all comers.
And, of course, there's the question of how much effort the new joint venture puts into smart grid, versus other parts of the burgeoning machine-to-machine communications market.
But Qualcomm's Pazol said that once confluence of smart grid and consumer electronics – in-home energy monitoring devices – could be one of the new joint venture's areas of focus, though he wouldn't comment specifically on how that might take place.
Verizon has said it would release energy management services for its FiOS broadband home router (see Verizon to Add Energy Management to FiOS).
And makers of in-home devices for Verizon and other telecommunications companies have developed energy management systems that could enter homes as an add-on to the existing communications, home entertainment and security services that telcos offer (see The Telco Home Energy Invasion).