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Seeking smart answers to grid questions

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The smart grid is positioned as holding the answers to a lot of problems inherent in the complex and unwieldy beast that is the nationís electric grid. It promises to enhance reliability, optimize energy delivery through granular control, give power to the consumer and minimize the gridís huge environmental impact. The answers the smart grid provides present a compelling opportunity, but the movement brings up a lot of new questions too Ė especially for the telecom service providers looking for a piece of the action.

Before telcos can define their role in smart grids, they must first define what exactly a smart grid is. And, like most technologies, ask 10 people and expect 10 different answers. Jeff Taft, smart grids global chief architect for consultancy Accenture, said that the definitions that exist are focused in different ways Ė either on the technology, the functionality, the benefits or the role of the stakeholder defining it. Common to all definitions, however, are the four main goals of updating the grid: making it observable, measurable, controllable and automatable. Ultimately, it comes down to managing new flows of data, he said. Communications is key, and therefore, communications service providers could become key as well.

Right now, most telcos Ė including AT&T, Qwest and Sprint Ė are sticking with the partner route, offering utilities the power of their pipe. While most have been working with utilities for years now, this kind of collaboration, as well as the business model, is all new to them. As such, it also brings up new challenges and opportunities for the vendors they work with, the utilities that are used to making money from encouraging power use and their end consumers who have to decide if they even want to be an active participant in their consumption habits.

Itís a new world for everyone, not just the traditionally voice-centric telcos, but it is one that most are embracing. Itís important to get detailed answers to the question of what a utility wants in a telco and, conversely, what a telco needs from a utility to make the business case worthwhile. Ultimately, telcos need to decide if they have more to offer than just a fatter pipe. When it comes to the smart grid, the smartest route a telco can take is still up for debate.

Iíll be attending Grid Week, an annual gathering of smart grid stakeholders in Washington, DC, next month in hopes of finding answers to these questions Ė and most likely coming up with a few more. Leading up to the show, be sure to check back to Connected Planet for an ongoing series on the key issues for telecom service providers entering the smart grid market. As always, I welcome your input along the way.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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