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Cisco, Itron team on smart-grid networking

Cisco and smart-meter maker team on communications system based on IP to connect everything from people's homes to power distribution equipment on the grid.

Networking giant Cisco Systems announced Tuesday a deal with meter maker Itron to advance Internet Protocol-based communications for the power grid.

The two companies will create a reference design for using the IPv6 networking protocol to connect everything from people's homes to power distribution equipment on the grid. That reference design will form the basis for gear installed in smart meters, sensors, and computing systems inside utilities, Cisco executives said.

Martin LaMonica/CNET

As part of the deal, Itron will license and embed Cisco's IP technology in its meters and distribute Cisco hardware as part Itron's smart-grid deployments.

Right now, communications on the grid is done with many proprietary protocols, but Itron and Cisco executives said using IP, the transport protocol of the Internet, will speed up grid modernization.

"We feel the market will accelerate when standards are in the market. We see it as a way to stimulate and broaden the market, which ultimately benefits us all," said Philip Mezey, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Itron.

The companies will develop a system which uses IP for neighborhood area networks, also called field networks, to bring data from smart meters back to utilities, said Paul De Martini, the chief technology officer for smart grid at Cisco.

The reference design will also address a number of grid-related applications, such as demand response, automation of power distribution equipment, managing energy storage, and distributed generation like rooftop solar panels, he said.

Major move by Cisco
Cisco has said that it considers the smart grid a $100 billion dollar market but it has only released a few products so far, including a home energy management controller and routers and switches for substations.

Although the companies were vague on product details and timing, the partnership is a much more significant move into the smart grid by Cisco, said Bob Gohn, a smart-grid analyst at Pike Research

Partnering with a significant meter manufacturer committed to using IP for data transport opens the way for Cisco to provide a number of add-on products, such as security and network management, he said.

"If they can sprinkle some of their own bits of intelligence as a software widget into various end devices (on the grid), it gives Cisco a better chance of providing the overall solution," Gohn said. "The parallel with the enterprise computing space is pretty easy to draw."

Itron has historically used proprietary communications technology in its meters, but having IP advocate Cisco as a partner improves its credibility on standards-based communications, Gohn added.