[pagebreak:Smart Grid: A Matter of Standards]

How open should the smart grid's communication and networking infrastructure be? And what's the definition of "open" communications standards in the first place?

As a host of utilities and smart meter companies turn to companies to help them network millions of smart meters being deployed across the nation, these questions are coming to the fore (see Smart Meter Installations Grow Nearly Fivefold).

Radio frequency mesh networks like those provided by smart meter makers Itron, Elster, Landis+Gyr and others – as well as the Internet protocol (IP)-based system from startup Silver Spring Networks – are coming under indirect criticism for their lack of openness by companies like Trilliant, which provide communications based on the ZigBee standard, or SmartSynch, which uses cellular networks from providers like AT&T.

At the same time, Eka Systems, which has developed its own smart meter data communications and networking technology, says that companies like Silver Spring Networks that have built IP networking systems are settling on a standard that, while open, will lead to problems with increasingly complex data communications needs to come in the future.

Who's right – or perhaps more importantly, which point of view utilities and regulators adopt – could play a big role in who succeeds in the emerging smart grid industry.

The subject is a hotly discussed one at the DistribuTech conference in San Diego this week, when companies spanning the reach of the smart grid meet to ply their wares and state the case for their technologies (see DistribuTech Shines Spotlight on Smart Grid).

Silver Spring: RF Mesh and IP

Take Silver Spring Networks, which provides communication networks for smart meter systems now being deployed by utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Florida Power & Light, American Electric Power and others, fueled by a $75 million investment led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (see Silver Spring Grabs $75M).

The Redwood City, Calif.-based company installs smart meter interface cards with frequency-hopping radios that mesh together in a 900-megahertz frequency range, much like technology from big smart meter makers.

But Silver Spring singles out its use of Internet protocol throughout the stages of its network to differentiate itself from those others.

"We see this as much as the Internet was conceived... it's capable of evolving and supported by so many parties as an open standard," said John O'Farrell, executive vice president of business development.

But the fact that Silver Spring still uses its own RF mesh technology for the physical transmission of data lays it open to criticism from other companies that have come up with different means of getting that done.

Trilliant's "Beefed-Up ZigBee"

Redwood City, Calif.-based Trilliant is one of them. The company has deals with about 100 utilities, including Ontario, Canada's Hydro One, and in August landed $40 million from MissionPoint Partners and zouk ventures.

Trilliant builds a "multi-tiered network" that uses a beefed-up version of the 802.15.4 wireless standard – which the ZigBee protocol uses for in-home equipment – as its primary home-to-utility concentrator point communications technology. That "SecureMesh" system then links to concentrators that can communicate to utilities via a variety of public and private wireless networks, said Eric Miller, chief solutions officer.

So what's that mean? Theoretically, Trilliant's physical communications system could be open to other equipment using its enhanced ZigBee-based gear, CEO Bill Vogel said during a recent meeting with reporters.

Silver Spring, on the other hand, "is open standard, but the last piece – the physical equipment – is proprietary," he said. "We embrace broader, more holistic stuff."

That's led Trilliant to push for Congress to include requirements for open standards-based systems in any federal support for smart grid technology deployment, Vogel said.

"Everything needs to be industry standards. Everything needs to be plug-and-play," he said.

[pagebreak:Standards: Continued]

Communications Options

Silver Spring has also called for open standards language to be included in any federal support for smart grid deployment (see Draft Stimulus Plan Has Billions for Smart Grid). That’s because Silver Spring doesn’t see a conflict with using RF mesh communications gear to support standards-based networking, O’Farrell said.

Rather, he says that utilities have settled upon RF mesh because it’s the best technology for the purpose.

"You’ve got WiFi, which as we know doesn’t work well in a municipal setting or widespread setting," he said (see An Old Favorite – WiFi – Preps to Disrupt Smart Meter Market). O’Farrell said that ZigBee has similar problems with transmitting in areas dense with trees, buildings and other obstructions – problems that Trilliant says it has solved with its 802.15.4-based technology.

O’Farrell added that there are powerful, but overly expensive, solutions like broadband over powerline technologies (see Will Smart Grid See a Push for Power-Line Networking?).

"And you’ve got WiMax, which may be promising, but will take a massive capital investment and many years to roll out," he said. Grid Net, a startup with links to Intel and General Electric, has come out in support of using WiMax for connecting smart meters to utilities (see The Next Smart Grid Technology: WiMax).

Still, O’Farrell insisted that Silver Spring is "absolutely committed to standardization in the RF mesh" field, and expected that work to accelerate as more and more utilities choose the technology for their smart meter efforts.

A Cellular Option?

For Stephen Johnston, CEO of smart meter communications networking company SmartSynch, the promise of future RF mesh standardization isn’t quite good enough.

"That’s kind of a weak answer," he said. "There are lots of things being developed. Does that mean that what they’re building will be what the end standard is?"

SmartSynch, not surprisingly, has its own answer: "We’re the only company in the space that’s really bet the ranch on public wireless networks," Johnston said. That’s the technology the Jackson, Miss.-based company has installed in meters and other gear in deals with more than 100 utilities, mostly in industrial and commercial smart metering.

On the residential side, where far more meters serve customers with far smaller individual power demands, "what the market hasn’t seen yet is a value story from our network partners that makes sense for mass deployment," he said.

But that could change very soon, he predicted.

"When these carriers decide they want to be in this business, you know they’ll do anything they need to win in this space," he said.

Who Defines Standards?

Of course, the question remains whether utilities will want to rely on wireless carriers or build their own networks. In that sense, the open versus closed standards issue goes beyond robustness and reliability.

In closed environments, utilities can set up a winner-take-all economy where companies touting very specific technologies get extensive contracts and all the other vendors are left out. In standards based environments, a wide variety of thermostat makers, software vendors and others can compete. In that scenario, a utility could offer customers $100 rebates if they installed a network card into their meter and give the consumer the option of picking up a wide variety of cards.

Nationwide, there will be probably be a mix with some utilities opting for closed environments and others opting for open, said Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril Networks.

"We come across utilities with that [closed] mindset all the time," he said. Approximately one-third of the utilities opt toward a winner-take-all closed approach, he said. "But they are outnumbered two to one by people who want an open approach."

Some companies, on the other hand, argue that talking about open standards at all at this point is putting the cart before the horse.

Srini Krishnamurthy, vice president of corporate development for Eka Systems, is one of them. His company raised $18.5 million in July and provides data networking technology to smart meter deployments in Russia, Singapore, Ecuador, the city of San Marcos, Texas and U.S. utilities including Tampa Electric (see Eka Systems Dives Into Water World).

Eka’s networking technology will be "IP-compliant," Krishnamurthy said, but added that "I believe we have invented a new routing infrastructure" to go beyond what he called the limitations of IP architecture as it exists today to connect millions of meters together.

In Eka’s case, "The network forms itself on the basis of the best available path and the best available routes, without having to tell any meter what to do," he said. "That’s part of our core intellectual property."

As far as Sam Lucero, senior analyst with ABI Research in Scottsdale, Ariz., is concerned, this fact means that Eka Networks’ technology is "an example of proprietary from top to bottom."

But Krishnamurthy says that’s not accurate, given what he sees as the evolving status of the industry.

"One can say "proprietary" only when there’s an open standard available and published for this application space," he said. But in the smart meter communications industry today, "There are bits and pieces emerging, but there isn’t one definitive approach or standard." Eka will work to be compliant with those standards as they emerge, he said.

Does It Matter?

When it comes to the "neighborhood area network" that Silver Spring, Trilliant, SmartSynch and Eka Networks are arguing over, ABI Research’s Lucero said that interoperability at the physical level, and even at the networking level, might not be that important.

"The communication that happens between the meters in an area and to a concentrator, or aggregator, there’s much less of a need for standardization," he said -- an argument that could apply to Silver Spring, as well as smart meter makers that have developed their own, often 900 megahertz, short-range wireless technology, he said. The lack of a strong case for standards at the neighborhood level could even apply at the networking level, he said.

It’s a different case in the so-called Home Area Network -- the stage that connects meters or other endpoints to home energy monitors, "smart" appliances and other devices within the home.

"That’s where standardization at all levels of the networking stack, the communication stack, is important," since "many utilities want as an end goal for consumers to be able to go and buy devices at retail."

Still, standards at the neighborhood area network level will be important for at least one group – the companies trying to bring new technologies and services to bear in utility smart meter deployments.

That’s the view that Erich Gunther, chairman and CTO for EnerNex Corp. and an architecture council member for the smart grid industry group GridWise Alliance, laid out in a January 2008 white paper on the topic.

"Presently, each communication vendor develops a unique interface card for each meter (in close cooperation with the meter vendor)," Gunther wrote. "This one-at-a-time, custom approach presents a high barrier of entry for new meter vendors. That’s good for meter vendors perhaps, but not for the utility customers."