WiMAX deployments in the utility sector are heating up outside of the U.S., but at least one vendor believes momentum will come to North America.

This week, WiMAX vendor Alvarion announced several contracts for WiMAX equipment internationally, including one with Norway-based Hafslund, one of the largest utility companies in the Nordic region. Hafslund has secured spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band and will provide broadband services to the Ostfold, Norway region. This is the third utility contract for Alvarion. Elro in Denmark and ICE in Costa Rica are using WiMAX to offer commercial broadband services.

But Ashish Sharma, Alvarion's vice president of corporate communications, said the company also is working on WiMAX-based smart grid applications, demonstrating that its gear can be used to gather data from smart meters and transported to a utility's back office.

"We're seeing utility companies in their own countries looking to acquire their own private spectrum, not just for broadband access but to build the backend," Sharma said.

General Electric, one of the top smart-meter makers in the United States, recently announced that it would install a network of its WiMAX-based MDS Mercury 3650 radios that operate in the 3.65 GHz band to connect Texas-based utility CenterPoint Energy's backhaul system to collection points that will aggregate data from smart meters. CenterPoint is installing smart meters for its 2.4 million customers in Houston using a self-contained WiMAX network.

In 2008, software company Grid Net licensed its WiMAX smart meter reference design to GE Energy for use in GE's advanced meter product family.

In the U.S., however, such deployments would depend on utility companies getting their hands on spectrum. The 3.65 GHz band will be one of the most popular frequencies in the U.S. for WiMAX deployments, as the licenses are practically free and are protected from interference. Entities must apply for the license with the FCC and pay a nominal fee. Once the license is granted, the licensee must register each site. While the license is non-exclusive, another entity with a similar license must demonstrate that its license doesn't interfere with the first licensee.

Sharma said some utilities might not be comfortable with that scenario, preferring to acquire a specific frequency assigned for them. He noted that one major Canadian utility is close to acquiring spectrum in the 1.5 GHz band.

Earlier this year, the Utilities Telecom Council (UTC) presented an analysis to the FCC about U.S. electric, gas and water utilities' radio-spectrum needs. In the analysis, the UTC asked government officials for at least 30 MHz of dedicated spectrum in order to support utilities' wireless network applications

Jill Lyon, UTC vice president and general counsel said access to at least 30 MHz of dedicated radio spectrum would support wireless technologies that make up the smart grid and its applications, such as wireless metering and capturing electricity from remote wind farms. Currently, available spectrum is scattered across small band segments: land mobile from 50-512 MHz, plus 800 MHz and 900 MHz; unlicensed in 900 MHz; point to multipoint in parts of 900 MHz; and fixed service from 4-11 GHz. Lyons said there is no dedicated spectrum other than six channel pairs in the 900 MHz band for railroads that total just 150 kHz.

"We've got to start connecting data networks together in order to create the efficiencies that the smart grid will require," she said in a recent interview with Urgent Communications. "Dedicated spectrum will help the industry do this."

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