WiMAX developers entering smart grid market

Major players including General Electric and Intel are testing WiMAX as a smart grid communications platform. Start-up companies like Grid Net are using it as well. Now Alvarion has become a smart grid technology developer. It is a natural move for the WiMAX networking gear manufacturer.
WiMAX, or Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access, was first developed by the WiMAX Forum that formed in June of 2001 and is designed to wirelessly transmit data at high speeds to distances of up to one mile. Alvarion is the largest developer of WiMAX products in the world with over 250 commercial deployments worldwide.

Still the WiMAX market is relatively small by comparison – at the end of 2008 it fetched $275 million and the number of subscribers numbered 3.9 million. Analysts expect this market to swell to 85 million subscribers by 2014.

According to Alvarion vice president Ashish Sharma, the company has played a part in a number of smart meter pilot projects. The company’s hardware has been used to compile data transmitted from smart meters and communicate it back to the utility company. In an interview with Reuters, Sharma couldn’t name specific participants in the projects but added that the companies should be named shortly. Sharma explained that Alvarion devices have also been used to help utilities regulate power and cut off access in emergency situations.

These pilot projects may be Alvarion’s first forays into smart grid development but the company has worked with utilities before. Power suppliers such as Elro in Denmark and ICE in Costa Rica have used its WiMAX gear to provide broadband Internet services to customers in addition to electricity and natural gas service.

The major advantage to using WiMAX as a smart grid protocol is its status an open platform. Since the system is not proprietary expensive licensing rights are not involved. With GE and Intel building upon the platform economies of scale will develop. As the technology becomes more popular it will become a very cost-effective option for cash-strapped utility companies. Grid Net’s Ray Bell expects WiMAX chipsets to fall from the current price of $36 to around $12 within a year. Six months after that Bell believes the chipsets could be priced between $6 and $8.

Critics of WiMAX point out that there is currently not a nationwide network using the protocol in the United States. However, Clearwire and Sprint – the original developers of WiMAX – have been slowly constructing one. Sharma doesn’t think the absence of a national WiMAX network will hinder smart grid development. He says utilities prefer to own their infrastructure.

Full Spectrum, another start-up company, agrees with Sharma. The company is manufacturing WiMAX equipment that handles power distribution at the point where it is distributed to substations, unlike Alvarion which concentrates on the collection point. Grid Net plans to sell software that supports WiMAX to utilities that own their own networks and to the national WiMAX network once it becomes available.




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