Trilliant Acquisition Signals Next Phase of Smart Grid
By: Jesse Berst
Back in March, I called Trilliant a "dark horse”in the race to become a leading provider of Smart Grid communications. Today the company pulled a few paces ahead with the acquisition of Santa Clara, CA-based SkyPilot Networks, a small, privately held provider of "broadband wireless.”
Welcome to Unified Communications
This acquisition marks a new phase for the industry. In the previous phase, communications companies focused on a single aspect. They provided a solution for dense urban areas or for sparse rural areas or for high-bandwidth substation communications or for demand response or... you get the idea. But nobody could offer broadband anywhere, to any customer, at a cost that was affordable. Equally important, nobody could give the utility a single view of those multiple communications systems. As a result, utilities were forced to mix and match communications technologies on their own. And to manage those multiple systems with multiple consoles.
In this next phase, vendors will be racing to provide a total solution. I call it "unified communications.” Although nobody â€" including Trilliant â€" is all the way there yet, the finish line is in plain sight. The end game is a communications and networking platform that can reach any customer, in any part of the service territory, with broadband communications at a reasonable price. Plus networking software that can manage it all.
(And, mark my words, vendors will also be racing to partner, merge, and combine. The market doesn’t need or want dozens of overlapping vendors who each solve one piece. The market wants complete solutions.)
Wi-Fi Plus "WiMAX Lite”
Trilliant was already strong in mesh Wi-Fi, the technology of choice for dense urban areas. Mesh Wi-Fi uses low-power, omnidirectional antennas, which create a low-cost system with redundancy and high availability. If an access point can’t talk to the collector, it simply passes the message along to another nearby access point and so on until the message reaches the collector for backhaul to the control center.
The SkyPilot acquisition gives Trilliant additional mesh capabilities. More importantly, it gives them expertise in point-to-multipoint systems that use high-power directional antennas. That type of system can provide broadband over much longer distances, making it ideal for rural settings and for backhaul communications.
Best of all, SkyPilot is well down the road to combining both technologies. It has multi-antenna gateways that switch and synchronize automatically. And it has software that can switch seamlessly between the two modes and manage both forms. I’m assuming that Trilliant won’t have much trouble assimilating SkyPilot. The two companies are just down the road from each other, and they have previously partnered on utility projects.
I’ll let you read the SkyPilot company profile for more details, but here are the advantages. First, this multimode system lets a utility use lower cost mesh where appropriate and more powerful point-to-multipoint where needed, while managing the whole thing with a single system. Second, it puts Trilliant part way down the road to WiMAX. Indeed, you could think of SkyPilot’s high-power technology as "WiMAX Lite.” When I interviewed SkyPilot executives, they assured me they could and would add in WiMAX chips as soon as they became more affordable.
The Long-Term Importance of Bandwidth
Once the technology integration is complete, Trilliant will have the most complete broadband solution. And make no mistake, full broadband capacity is critical for the growth of the Smart Grid. Sure, you can get by with low-bandwidth communications right now. But the Smart Grid’s real potential won’t be realized until utilities layer multiple applications on top of the communications infrastructure. Each application â€" demand response, distribution automation, remote monitoring, remote disconnect â€" takes a bit of bandwidth. When you start adding them up, you realize that low-bandwidth systems could run out of space in a few years.
With this acquisition, Trilliant becomes the only company that can promise high bandwidth coverage to every customer and substation in the territory as well as a single view of the entire network. That makes Trilliant the first "future-proof” communications solution.
Can They Tell the Story?
Although I’m optimistic about Trilliant’s technical promise, I’ll have to withhold judgment on their ability to tell the story. Marketing has been Trilliant’s weak point. The firm must now convince cautious utilities to think years ahead. Many utilities still don’t have a long-term Smart Grid roadmap. They are prone to buying solutions that solve today’s problems but can’t grow with them tomorrow. (Some utilities, for instance, are still installing one-way AMR systems instead of two-way smart meters.) Trilliant’s job is to prove to utilities that they’ll need more bandwidth in the future and, therefore, why they should buy a system with more headroom.
What about the Competition?
Now that Trilliant has led the way, I expect other vendors to jump on the unified communications bandwagon. SmartSynch has been working with multiple communications channels for years, but it has focused on technologies with less bandwidth and less popularity such as paging networks and, more recently, cellular. With the cellular companies now dropping their prices and with promises that they will soon move to higher-bandwidth LTE (long-term evolution) systems, Smart Synch may eventually get to the unified promised land.
Silver Spring Networks (one of SGN’s sponsors) has reached prominence by staying a step ahead of the "old-line” companies. We can assume that they’ve seen unification coming and have a game plan. Grid Net has been betting on WiMAX, but could backfill a mesh solution. Grid Net is already focusing on carrier-class network management, which could give it advantages on the software side.
Esco and its Aclara brand might also have a story to tell. Today Aclara has mesh RF for urban areas and can reach rural areas with its low-bandwidth powerline technology (the legacy TWACS system). It is finally beginning to merge the two systems. If it gets its unification act together, it could offer utilities a low-cost transitional system. Aclara could sell a combination of mesh and powerline for now, as long as it could promise a seamless transition to WiMAX or LTE or another high-bandwidth, long-distance technology at some point in the future.
Itron and the other traditional meter manufacturers are venturing further and further into the communications space. If they are smart, they’ll be looking for acquisitions and partnerships that let them tell a unified story.
And that brings us to Cisco Systems, which recently announced its intention to become a major play in grid communications and networking. We suspect that Cisco will play at the head end, preferring for the moment to let companies such as Trilliant plough the ground out in the field. Once it has its central story together, watch for Cisco to extend its reach by snapping up a few of the leaders.