Duke Energy has been talking for some time about how it will take a new approach to bringing communications to its electricity grid, in a way that Chief Technology Officer David Mohler has likened to creating an "internet for energy."

One of the pieces of that plan fell into place Thursday, as smart meter networking company SmartSynch announced its new "Universal Communications Module," with Duke as its first customer.

The idea is to link a variety of communications – wireless, power line carrier, fiber – in one box, and allow vendors to switch them out as technologies evolve, SmartSynch CEO Stephen Johnston said.

Key to the idea is that smart meters themselves shouldn't necessarily be the backbone of a utility's grid communications infrastructure, as they are for most of the smart meter deployments underway in the United States today.

That's mainly because of the bandwidth constraints of smart meter-centered communications, which have to stay relatively low to be cheap enough to be deployed in the millions (see A Broadband Smart Grid?).

"A lot of our peers out there have seen the meter as a communications portal into the house. We see it as a communications bottleneck," is how Duke's Mohler put it in a February interview with Greentech Media.

That doesn't mean that SmartSynch's modules will replace smart meters, however, Johnston noted. Rather, they'll help meters talk with the utility, while also supporting distribution automation, in-home energy monitoring and control and all the other things that many are looking to meters to provide.

"We don't necessarily see this as a meter replacement strategy," Johnston said. "We see this as an adjunct to the smart meters we deploy into the market place today." SmartSynch connects smart meters and other devices over wireless networks from AT&T,T-Mobile and other carriers, mostly for industrial and commercial customers, though it is making a push into residential meters (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cell Phone).

Johnston wouldn't provide details on SmartSynch's deal with Duke, except to say that it would lead to a "sizable deployment" by the end of this year. He also wouldn't specify how Duke intended to use the modules at first.

Neither would Duke, though the utility's smart grid general manager, Don Denton, said they could be used to bypass meters and communicate directly with in-home devices, possibly using WiFi or other communications technologies.

"With a device that allows you to replace units as the technology evolves, you won't have to have a complete rip-and-replace," he added.

Duke is also using similar communications devices from Ambient Corp. Those nodes are built to be deployed at distribution transformers, where they pick up meter data from smart meters using Echelon's power line carrier technology.

Echelon, which has multiple smart meter deployments in Europe, recently announced it was working with T-Mobile to use the cellular carrier's networks – yet another sign that the smart grid will require a host of communications technologies to meet different needs (Echelon, T-Mobile Team Up For Smart Grid Contracts).

Duke intends to use both Ambient and SmartSynch devices as part of its smart grid deployments, Denton said, though he wouldn't give specifics. Duke has done a roughly 60,000-meter deployment in Cincinnati and a smaller project in the utility's headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C., and is seeking regulator approval for much larger smart meter deployments in Ohio and Indiana.

 SmartSynch's new modules are similar to the Direct Control eXternal devices it launched early this year (see Green Light post). Those are based on technology SmartSynch acquired from Applied Mesh, which it bought in November, said Ben Schuman, analyst at Pacific Crest Securities (see Acquisitions in Smart Grid: Get Used to It).

As for whether other utilities will pick up on the device, "It all boils down to what the communications costs are," Schuman said. "In certain applications it could be pretty compelling."

One such application, he noted, would be to use SmartSynch's modules to read data from an older generation of meters that can only send data, not receive it. That could provide a communications pathway to the home without

That's a potentially lucrative market, given that there are tens of millions of those meters now in the field in the United States (see Tendril Moves to Link Up Old-School Meters).