Smart grid – it's where every major telecommunications provider wants to be nowadays, and Sprint is no exception.

AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and many other carriers are increasingly announcing partnerships and projects using their networks to link utilities to the floods of data coming from devices like smart meters, distribution monitors and grid control systems.

Sprint has a lot of smart grid projects and partnerships underway as well, but has so far stayed relatively quiet about them all. But that changed this week, as the company laid out its broad ambitions for expanding its already prominent line of business with utilities – not only on its well-used iDEN and CDMA networks, but for its next generation of wireless communications, WiMax.

That's according to Robert Gustin, Sprint's national program manager for utilities. About 20 percent of Sprint's hundreds of existing utility customers are now involved with the company in some form of machine-to-machine smart grid project, he said Wednesday.

It can include things like serving as the backhaul, or wide area, network for smart meters or distribution automation equipment, he said – something wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon are doing as well (see Green Light posts here and here).

Sprint's network will serve that purpose at utility smart grid deployments including a $200 million smart meter project planned by Florida Power & Light, Gustin said (see A Million Smart Meters for Miami).

Sprint's smart grid work can also involve partnerships with top smart meter manufacturers and grid sensor and control device makers, he added. Companies developing devices to work on Sprint's network include top smart meter makers GE, Elster, Landis+Gyr and Itron, he said.

It's all part of the growing  "machine-to-machine" business for wireless carriers, that is, linking devices that can "talk" to one another directly. While utilities aren't the biggest customer for such products and services, they're growing fast, Gustin said – after all, there are roughly 320 million electric, gas and water meters in the United States.

Beyond meters, one of Sprint's utility clients – Gustin wouldn't say which one – recently told him they're expecting to install about 12 million smart grid devices over the coming decade that will need a communications network of some kind.

Of course, utilities have a broad array of options to link up those devices, from proprietary and open wireless or power line communications for local area networks to cellular, fiber optic or satellite communications for wide area, backhaul networks.

And while cellular remains a prevalent option for wide area networks, North American utilities have so far shied away from using it for the localized linking of smart meters and other devices.

One reason is that these utilities have tended to seek to own their own communications systems, partly because they get to charge customers for the costs of capital projects through increased electricity rates signed off on by state utility regulatory bodies, analysts say (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Wish Lists).

But the comparatively high cost of going cellular, compared to lower-cost wireless mesh or power line carrier technologies, has also played a role, Gustin said – particularly when it comes to high-volume, low-cost items like residential smart meters, which need to stay in place for decades, rather than the few years more typical of consumer electronics.

Certainly there are moves underway to buck that trend – most notably in a partnership between AT&T and smart meter networking provider SmartSynch to link residential smart meters via AT&T's networks, something the two have done for some time with for commercial and industrial meters (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cellphone).

T-Mobile USA has a partnership with smart meter maker Echelon to offer similar functionality (see Echelon, T-Mobile Team on Smart Meter Contracts). And Verizon Wireless recently announced a joint venture with Qualcomm that could expand both companies' roles in smart grid communications (see Qualcomm's Machine-to-Machine Smart Grid Moves).

But Gustin believes that the real breakthrough will come when a new, standardized communications technology comes along to open the door to manufacturers to make hundreds of millions of chipsets to serve it – perhaps first for consumer electronics devices, but then for smart grid applications as mass manufacturing drives down costs.

Not surprisingly, Sprint believes that WiMax – the high-bandwidth, open standards-based technology it has placed a big bet on with its joint venture with WiMax network developer Clearwire – will be that next technology.

WiMax is being deployed in smart grid projects already, as with Texas utility CenterPoint Energy, which is using utility-owned WiMax radios from General Electric for smart meter backhaul communications (see GE Offers WiMax Smart Meter Solution). Sprint has been working with both GE and CenterPoint, Gustin said.

GE is also backing startup Grid Net, which makes WiMax communications modules that go into GE smart meters now being tested by Australian utilities SP AusNet and Energy Australia. Sprint has worked with Grid Net as well, Gustin said.

But Australia already has a broadly deployed WiMax network to support those devices – and in North America, WiMax's spread is far more limited, though growing.

Clearwire launched its first major citywide WiMax network in Baltimore, Md. In the fall of 2008, and has since added Las Vegas, Atlanta and Portland, Ore. Earlier this month it announced it set Sept. 1 for the launch of WiMax service in 10 markets in Texas and Washington.

It hopes to add Chicago, Dallas, Honolulu, Philadelphia, Seattle and Charlotte, N.C. to the list by the end of 2009, then New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and the San Francisco Bay Area by 2010 – part of a broader goal to be in 80 markets with 120 million potential customers by the end of next year.

Of course, even utilities that include those cities won't necessarily be able to expect that WiMax will reach the entirety of their service territories.

But then, utilities are used to having to use multiple technologies to cover territories that range from sparsely populated rural areas to densely packed city neighborhoods, Gustin noted – and WiMax could become a cheap and effective option for some of them as its coverage expands.

In the meantime, Sprint isn't standing still – Gustin said the company expected to announce a raft of new smart grid-related projects and partnerships in the coming weeks and months.

Those could include projects that are seeking some of the $3.9 billion in smart grid stimulus grants that the Department of Energy expects to start giving out later this year, he said (see Smart Grid Stimulus Applications at $2.85B and Counting).

Interact with smart grid industry visionaries from North American utilities, innovative hardware and software vendors and leading industry consortiums at The Networked Grid on November 4 in San Francisco.