SmartSynch today announced that it has come up with a smart meter for Sprint's networks, further expanding its alliances with public carriers.

Last week, SmartSynch announced residential grid products for the Verizon network. The company has a longstanding relationship, of course, with AT&T.

Buy or build? That's the dilemma facing utilities and the one facing SmartSynch. Utilities, ideally, would like to own their own -- and control their own -- meter networks. Utilities tend to be conservative, and dedicated meter networks would arguably provide some reliability and security advantages. However, they cost money. To pay for a network, utilities have to go to their state utility commissions and argue for a rate increase to pay for the upgrade. In many areas, citizens have said they don't like the idea of smart meters, so getting the rate increases has become increasingly difficult.

Forget the fears about electromagnetic frequency and higher power bills. Smart meters at this stage generally benefit the utility by allowing it to do things like turn on and off accounts remotely rather than having to send out a truck. The one-way nature of the current benefits is one of the reasons utility agencies are likely to scrutinize smart meter rate increases more carefully.

Enter SmartSynch and its carrier pals. By allowing meter data to ride on secure channels on public networks, utilities can automate their meters for less. SmartSynch and the carriers will charge fees, but ideally less than they would have to charge to fund building their own network. The challenge, however, has been that these sort of networks get paid out of operating budgets. The company has done a 10,000-meter trial with Texas-New Mexico Power and has won a contract to help the Tennessee Valley Authority with its renewable program, but it has not won contracts on the scale of those that have been secured by competitors like Trilliant and Silver Spring Networks.

How this dilemma works out will be one of the biggest issues in smart meters in the years to come.