Can fibre-based smart grids provide a solution to our superfast broadband problems?

fibre opticDo you have superfast fibre optic broadband? The answer is probably not, because in the US, UK, Australia and elsewhere projects are riven by funding issues, political in-fighting and delays, delays, delays. The answer just might be right in front of our eyes.

Take this new report from Ovum on smart grids. Before you fall asleep, the smart grid pilot project it refers to in China is being undertaken by the SGCC, the largest utility in the world, so plenty of food for thought for utilities globally depending on what happens with it.

The crux of the Ovum piece is that the pilot – if it goes nationwide – is likely to offer a potential windfall of up to $2bn for international fibre infrastructure vendors. Yup, the project is basically running power alongside fibre to kill three birds with one stone – deliver power, run a smart grid (ie collect and monitor smart meters in customer homes) and potentially offer triple play services.

This hasn’t really been done with any great degree of success outside of Japan, where investments were made over a long period of time, report author Julie Kunstler told me. But if it works out in China, the big question is whether it could show US utilities a way forward – yes fibre is pretty costly but apply for a telco license or lease the lines to comms providers and they could fund such an investment.

It’s sorely needed, in the US and elsewhere, to manage that difficult last mile problem. As Kunstler told me, it solves this issue because power companies already shoot their cables right into the customers’ home, and are pretty much ubiquitous to boot.

In the end it’s still very early days, and although a technology supplier in China I spoke to said they were confident of this 80,000 home pilot going nationwide, even then, the unique political and economic conditions in the People’s Republic may make it the only country where such a huge project can work.

As Clive Longbottom of analyst Quocirca told me, “getting Verizon and AT&T to work together is like getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on a new fiscal package”.

This is where China has the edge – a basically homogenous, state-run set up where what the government says goes…a government, by the way, which has seemingly bottomless pockets and huge aspirations  to lead the world in technology deployments, the bigger the better.

In the meantime, the citizens of the UK, US, Australia and elsewhere will continue to suffer from the kind of political indecision and selfish stakeholders which have thus far hampered any kind of coherent national superfast broadband strategy.

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