Asia’s smart grid market is already worth $8.5 billion a year, and GTM Research predicts it will grow to $19 billion by 2016. That’s made it the target of every smart grid company in the world, from transmission and distribution gear giants like GE, Siemens, Schneider Electric and ABB to smart metering vendors like Echelon, Landis+Gyr, Elster, Itron -- and now, Trilliant.

The Redwood City, Calif.-based smart grid networking company announced its first foothold in Asia this week, in partnership with systems integrator Comintel and the research arm of Tenaga Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s biggest utility. The initial project calls for networking two of the utility’s campuses in Malaysia to test a range of technologies, said Bryan Spear, Trilliant’s new managing director for the Asia-Pacific region.

It’s a potentially big opening for Trilliant, which has raised about $146 million from investors including VantagePoint Capital Partners, Investor Growth Capital, MissionPoint Capital Partners and Zouk Ventures, as well as strategic investors like Swiss grid giant ABB and Taiwanese chip maker United Microelectronics.

The UMC investment, made in Dec. 2010, has been useful in introducing Trilliant to other potential partners in Asia, said Rob Conant, Trilliant’s chief marketing officer, though he wouldn’t provide any more details. Trilliant has some 400 customers around the globe, including multi-million meter deployments with Canada’s Hydro One, and potential for millions more in new markets such as the U.K.

Malaysian partner TNB serves 7.4 million customers, and has generation, transmission and distribution assets in Malaysia, Mauritius, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia, making it a significant player in the region. The country is developing a plan that could include more than 4 million smart meters being rolled out in the coming years, Spear said.

Of course, there’s no guarantee of just when the utility will roll out smart meters en masse, or whether it will choose Trilliant to do it with -- the project announced this week is just a first step for the company.

Still, there’s no doubt that Asia represents a massive new market for smart meters, with the region expected to see a sevenfold increase in deployments, from about 53 million today to some 350 million by 2016. The majority of that is going to come in China, where giant state utility State Grid of China Corp. and other key government partners plan to spend billions of dollars per year on rolling out some 300 million smart meters over the coming decade. 

China’s massive smart meter rollout is expected to favor domestic smart meter manufacturers, partnering with foreign companies for technology and expertise. San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon, for example, is licensing its technology to Chinese meter maker Holley Metering, while selling control nodes and low-cost meters to partners in South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia.

In Japan, a country that’s putting smart grid spending in high gear to deal with its post-Fukushima disaster power crisis, Tokyo Electric Power wants to deploy about 17 million smart meters by 2019, as well as a host of smart grid projects aimed at making the country more efficient. Silver Spring Networks, which raised a $30 million strategic investment from Hitachi in March, and Landis+Gyr, the smart metering giant bought by Toshiba for $2.3 billion last year, could be expected to compete in that market.

Trilliant, for its part, offers both a high-bandwidth, long-range networking capability via the assets it acquired from SkyPilot in 2009, as well as its neighborhood-area mesh networking system, which runs in the unlicensed 2.4-gigahertz spectrum.

That’s an important differentiator in Asia and Europe, compared to competitors like Silver Spring, Itron, Landis+Gyr, Elster and other mesh networking vendors that have taken the lead in North American smart meter deployments. Those all use 900-megahertz unlicensed spectrum to connect most of the smart meters rolled out in North America to date.

But in much of Asia (and Europe), the 900-megahertz bands are reserved for cellular communications, Conant noted. An exception is Japan, where metering giants Elster, Itron, Silver Spring Networks and Landis+Gyr are cooperating on a new standard for 900-megahertz smart grid networks.

The 2.4-gigahertz band, on the other hand, is more or less reserved for unlicensed wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and WiMAX to operate in across most of Asia, Conant said. Trilliant, which uses its own technology over standards-based 2.4-gigahertz communications chips from various vendors, can fit into that landscape quite nicely, he noted.

Whether that plays to Trilliant’s advantage or not remains to be seen. Asian smart meter networks will use a variety of technologies to communicate with each other and the grid at large. China, for example, is looking at powerline communications -- sending data over the same lines that carry electricity -- for much of its smart meter deployment.

Cellular communications will likely also play an increasingly important role in connecting the wide-area networks that allow utilities to network devices across cities and regions. Trilliant is well versed in integrating cellular with its own networks, a capability shared by competitors such as Silver Spring Networks, Landis+Gyr and SmartSynch (now part of Itron). U.S. startup Glen Canyon, which builds a smart meter for $25 or less and is targeting Chinese partners, it also looking at cellular to connect its devices.