Two years ago, Verizon told us it was just about to unveil a major new cellular-connected, cloud-hosted smart-grid-as-a-service offering that would convince utilities that it’s better to rent their smart metering infrastructure than to own it. We reported the news, waited for the first customer announcement -- and nothing happened.

That’s not too surprising, given how challenging the past two years have been for the smart meter business in North America. This slowdown certainly appears to have curtailed the growth prospects for smart-grid-as-a-service offerings from the likes of Verizon, AT&T, and General Electric, judging from their lack of new customer announcements on this front.

But, expand the business model to include the energy internet of things as a service, and you’ll be right in step with the rest of the smart meter competition.

That’s essentially what Verizon did on Wednesday with the launch of its Grid Wide Utility Solutions platform, a 4G LTE-enabled, cloud-hosted platform meant to connect “smart metering, demand response, meter data management and distribution monitoring and control” under one roof.

Most utilities use cellular service for various parts of their grid communications infrastructure, such as backhaul for utility-owned advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) networks that use mesh radio networks from companies like Itron, Landis+Gyr, Elster and Silver Spring Networks.

But Verizon’s platform takes cellular directly to each meter, and is aimed at smaller investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities and electric cooperatives that don’t want to invest in owning their own metering hardware and IT infrastructure, Jay Olearain, director of business development for energy & utilities at Verizon’s IOT Connected Solutions group, said in an interview.

The platform is now being piloted with unnamed utility partners using smart meters from General Electric, though Verizon is working on embedding its communications cards in meters from other vendors as well in the future, he said. “In particular, we’re looking at how LTE is a game-changer,” he added. The spread of Verizon’s 4G LTE cellular network is allowing for faster and more data-rich coverage, compared to previous generations of cellular.

As for the cost per meter, “We’re bringing LTE to the point where it’s price-competitive with mesh,” he said, though he wouldn’t provide any specific price points. Perhaps more importantly, though, "it’s not cost-competitive for them to do it on their own" with mesh. 

Take the case of a utility that wants to put a relatively small number of meters or sensors at certain key parts of its grid -- perhaps at key customer sites in sections of the distribution grid that are presenting power-quality challenges. These can be costly add-ons for mesh networks, which require a lot of adjacent meters to let data “hop” from one meter to the next on its way to central collection points. Cellular can hook them up wherever it has coverage. 

“We’re working currently with some deployment proposals for greenfield space,” replacing an entire fleet of electromechanical meters with cellular-connected devices, he said. “But we’re talking to others for fill-in -- they have an existing AMI vendor, but it just doesn't make sense to reach certain endpoints with their AMI solution.”

Verizon is embedding a fair amount of computing power in the communications cards it’s putting in the field, allowing them to be actively managed for data throughput, frequency of backhaul communication, and other network service issues that can arise from sharing airspace with RF mesh, he added.

On the software side, Verizon bundles AMI head-end and meter data management (MDM) software in its hosted platform, as well as outage management software and some distribution grid power quality analytics capabilities, he said. Some of that software is developed in-house, and some of it is licensed from as-yet-unnamed partners, he said. Verizon is a smart grid communications partner across the country, with Siemens’ eMeter as a common partner, and it’s also working with Duke Energy’s so-called “coalition of the willing,” which gives it a lot of potential grid partners.

At the same time, Verizon is integrating with utility-hosted MDM software, as well as billing and customer information software platforms, using the MultiSpeak version of the utility Common Information Model standard, he said. “The integration fees are quite low,” he said, enabling deployments that “can be as low as, say, 500 to 1,000 meters,” though, once again, he didn’t provide specific price points. 

And because it’s all provided over Verizon’s network and IT infrastructure, utilities can pick and choose from a menu of services they want to tap, from a few for initial rollouts to many in the future, he said. “It could be a small cooperative utility, 5,000 meters under management, and they want to do 10 percent of those, because they’re hard reads, or they want to turn them into power-quality sensors, or line sensors to get notifications on outages," he said. “What’s attractive to us is having a large population of utilities get on-boarded, and they will start to consume services."

That's where the internet of things comes in, though more as an aspiration at present. “Looking at other IOT devices besides meters, those will be enhancements to our Grid Wide service over time,” Olearain said. “Down the road, it will be a family of other types of grid sensors.” Beyond that, “We’ve taken a look at, for example, the solar space -- there’s definitely a big opportunity in supporting solar-as-a-service companies,” he said. “Demand response and load control is an enhancement you’ll see down the road.”

Verizon faces potential competition, and potential partnership opportunities, from the standing list of smart-meter-and-beyond networking platform players like Silver Spring Network and Toshiba's Landis+Gyr, distributed energy players like SolarCity and Stem, and system integration and grid SCADA and gear giants like Siemens, Schneider Electric, ABB and GE. Cisco is also an obvious IOT contender in the grid space, with its IoX grid router running Linux for easy application development, a link-up with Itron’s edge-of-network Riva platform, and its work with Duke Energy, to name a few of its more prominent projects. Of course, Cisco and Verizon also work together at Duke and in other deployments.

“We’ve really stitched together an internet-of-things solution for what we call utility grid solutions,” Olearain said. “We have folks working on that exact strategy, looking beyond AMI and MDM, what’s next as a hosted service model. There are things that Verizon does today, that utilities do today. […] We’re looking at a true meter-to-cash solution at some point in time, as the system evolves -- and beyond meter-to-cash, what other things are out there where hosted, as a service model, makes sense. We’re going to be looking at the way that utilities use information.”