In what may be a telling sign that cellular communications have been accepted as a viable option for the communications layer of the smart grid, meter giant Itron, Liberty Lake, Wash., last month signed a $100 million deal to acquire SmartSynch, a provider of smart meters that use existing cellular networks. The deal brings together two companies that have worked in partnership on many projects for a decade, and gives Itron added flexibility to offer utilities any communication format they prefer.

SmartSynch scored a win last September that many analysts and commentators in the smart grid arena declared a game-changer. Consumers Energy, Jackson, Mich., selected SmartSynch to provide the advanced metering system that will form the foundation of a grid and meter modernization program for its 1.8 million electric customers in Michigan. That upgrade begins rolling out in Aug. 2012.

“The company's decision to utilize existing cellular networks for large-scale, high performance smart grid communications, in lieu of building and maintaining a private network, comes after extensive research and testing of available industry solutions. It makes Consumers Energy, which serves more than two-thirds of Michigan across a 32,000-square-mile service territory, the largest U.S. utility to choose a cellular-based communication system for the smart meter deployment phase of its grid modernization program,” said a Consumers Energy press release announcing that decision.

This followed a decision by Texas New Mexico Power (TNMP), a transmission and distribution company based in Lewisville, Texas, to use smart meters from GE and SmartSynch, communicating over AT&T's cellular network, for a smart grid deployment that began last fall in its service area along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Adding SmartSynch to its stable will open doors for Itron to use the companies' complementary technologies to provide a solution in areas where radio frequency (RF) mesh networks are not available, or are cost prohibitive.

Many smart-grid observers said the research and due diligence done by Consumers Energy and TNMP before choosing the cellular option would go a long way to allay concerns by other utilities.