AT&T / SmartSynch Cellular-Smart Meter Partnership Signs Up First Utility

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Includes: PNM, T
by: Greentech Media

By Jeff St. John

The partnership announced last month between AT&T (NYSE:T) and SmartSynch to connect household electricity meters to utilities via cellular networks just landed its first customer.

That’s Texas-New Mexico Power Co., which has hired the partnership for a pilot project to link up about 10,000 homes with two-way communicating meters. The utility serves about 230,000 customers and is owned by Albuquerque, N.M.-based PNM Resources (NYSE:PNM).

Using public cellular networks is an alternative to the radio frequency mesh systems being used for most residential smart meter deployments in the nation so far. That’s the technology being added to smart meters by Silver Spring Networks and Trilliant, as well as that built into meters from companies like Itron (NASDAQ:ITRI) and Landis+Gyr.

While Jackson, Miss.-based SmartSynch has been working for years with AT&T to link smart meters via cellular networks at commercial and industrial facilities, bringing that ability to residential meters is a new thing (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cellphone).

AT&T and SmartSynch’s 10,000-home deal is quite small compared to the multi-million smart meter deployments using various forms of RF mesh technology. That includes 5 million meters being deployed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (NYSE:PCG), 4.8 million by Southern California Edison, 4.5 million by Florida Power & Light, 2.4 million by CenterPoint Energy (NYSE:CNP), 3 million by Oncor, and 1.9 million by Pepco Holdings Inc. (NYSE:POM), among others.

The pros for utilities in using cellular networks include piggybacking onto an existing communications network rather than having to build one of their own. The cons can include the uncertainty over costs to access that network, versus one the utility owns itself.

But SmartSynch CEO Stephen Johnston said he believes that cellular carriers will continue to cut costs to compete in the growing smart meter networking field.

The Obama administration has called for 40 million smart meters to be deployed across the country, and February’s stimulus package included $4.5 billion in grants to be given to so-called “smart grid” projects, which could include smart meter deployments (see Obama Signs Stimulus Package).

Cellular networks are in wider use as so-called “backhaul” networks to carry smart meter data back to utility offices from aggregater devices that serve a local, or neighborhood, area network of meters. That’s what KORE Telematics is doing for an 800,000 smart meter project by utility Arizona Public Service, using AT&T’s wireless network, and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) serves that purpose for Itron.

In Europe, by the way, power-line carrier technology from companies like Echelon (NASDAQ:ELON) is a popular option for smart meter networking. But U.S. utilities have expressed less interest in the technology, given some differences in the way power grids have been built in Europe versus North America (see Silver Spring Head Down Under).