Google’s Latest White Space Push: The Smart Grid

1Executive Summary

Two years ago, Google launched its Free The Airwaves campaign in an effort to draw attention to the idea of using “white spaces” — tiny slivers of spectrum vacated by the switch from analog televisions to digital — for wireless broadband. But just recently, the search engine giant, along with partners, has thrown smart grid applications into this mix as the latest effort to win over hearts and minds to the elusive and much-debated white space technology. Will an application like the digital power grid help unlock the massive potential behind the unused TV broadcast channels, which could boost broadband penetration in the U.S., and particularly in crucial rural areas?

White Space, A Dream Deferred

The tantalizing idea behind the untapped white space is that now, since analog TV channel operators have moved to digital, very valuable, spectrum — nationwide and free to use because it is unlicensed (not owned by any company but guided by rules) and providing more spectrum in a spectrum-constrained world — has been unleashed. If regulators and companies could just agree on rules for how to manage this unlicensed spectrum, the idea is that companies could tap into this new source and offer new wireless applications and services, and proliferate wireless broadband. Google, Dell, HP, Philips and Intel have all voiced plans to develop white-space devices, with many seeing the former TV spectrum as a way to bypass the last-mile networks of incumbent broadband providers like AT&T and Qwest Communications.

But while Google’s white spaces campaign got a lot of eyeballs, and the white spaces controversy has had a lot of ink, at this point there are only a couple of functioning trial white spaces networks in the U.S. That’s because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which has been conducting hearings on white space spectrum since at least 2004, has yet to make a final ruling on how to regulate the use of the spectrum, holding back companies from being certified to sell white space-enabled radios. The debate has been over whether or not using white spaces for broadband would cause interference with other wireless applications, like wireless microphones, and whether or not white spaces should remain unlicensed.

The controversy has largely subsided and companies like startup Spectrum Bridge (which is backed by True Ventures, see disclosure below), Microsoft, Google and Motorola have been proving, through technical trials, that “no,” there isn’t a problem with interference in the white space and have leaned toward keeping the spectrum unlicensed. But it’s still taking time for the dream that Google’s founder Larry Page once called a tremendous opportunity to bring the Internet to more Americans, a reality.

White Smart Grid Spectrum

But this week, a group of companies, including Google, are announcing the first-ever smart grid-focused white space network, working with utility Plumas-Sierra Rural Electric Cooperative & Telecommunications in the tiny county of Plumas-Sierra in Northern California. Spectrum Bridge provided the software and database and Google provided its energy management software, PowerMeter. Google also brought in Energy Inc., which makes the TED. Spectrum Bridge’s Neeraj Srivastava, VP of Business Development and Marketing, said that TED has supplied about a dozen TEDs for the project.

The county of Plumas-Sierra, which has about 20,000 people and is nestled in the Sierras, is unusually mountainous, making it difficult for the PSREC to install a wireless network to offer residential broadband and smart grid services (many wireless networks need to connect via line of sight). But that’s where white space comes in. The technology can offer wireless connections up to miles away and across rural and hilly regions. For example, the white-space spectrum that some companies like Microsoft have used in trials (between 512 megahertz and 698 MHz) naturally offers a much longer range than today’s 2.4GHz Wi-Fi networks, promising greater reach in rural areas.

Thus, the PSREC turned to Spectrum Bridge and its white space software, and using an experimental license from the FCC, wired up several of its substations, giving the utility full networked monitoring.

The technology worked well enough on the substations that Spectrum Bridge brought in Google — a longtime supporter of white spaces — to create a smart meter-type scenario, using Google’s PowerMeter and the TED device as a a defacto smart meter. Srivastava says that to do a commercial trial with white spaces and the smart grid, some day the FCC will have to give the final approval on the white space ruling, which Srivasta expects in the third quarter of this year.

Smart Grid Potential

While the smart grid — basically adding IT intelligence to the power grid — might not be sexy compared to the web, companies like Cisco think it could one day be a lot bigger than the Internet. There will be an estimated $210 billion invested into the smart grid between 2010 to 2015, according to Pike Research. Google has moved into the smart grid by creating web-based energy management software called PowerMeter via its philanthropist group, Google.org. Though the search engine giant insists that it doesn’t plan to monetize PowerMeter, Google has gotten into side businesses through similar types of experiments, and it has also focused on energy by trying to reduce its data center energy consumption, as well as getting approval from the government to buy and sell energy on the whole sale market.

The smart grid is still a nascent market and utilities are just starting to choose the communications technologies for their networks, including proprietary radio frequency, WiMAX, Wi-Fi or fiber. If white spaces proves to be particularly apt for running smart grid services, perhaps it could end up playing a key role in the future of the power grid. Google, for a long time, has admitted that the more it supports alternative forms of broadband, the more its search and Internet advertising business can expand.

Smart grid services as an application for white spaces could also end up helping speed up the time it takes for more white space networks to get built. The additional application could provide fodder for the argument that the FCC needs to finalize white spaces more quickly, and companies will have this potentially massive industry to justify the investment.

Spectrum Bridge is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.

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