How On-Ramp Wireless Wants to Transform the Utility Biz

How On-Ramp Wireless Wants to Transform the Utility Biz

It's been a good year for On-Ramp Wireless. The San Diego-based developer of smart grid wireless monitoring and networking technology was among the winners in this year's GE Ecomagination Challenge, and last week On-Ramp president and CEO Joaquin Silva was named one of the 15 most influential energy executives by FierceEnergy.

Recently, On-Ramp Wireless announced a partnership with Fountain Springs and Korea Telecom to deploy its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system as part of the country's Jeju Smart Grid Test-Bed project, considered one of the largest smart grid projects in the world. On-Ramp's metering and sensing technology will help connect up to 6,000 homes with schools, wind turbines, transmission lines, energy storage systems, and plug-in vehicles.

In an interview, CEO Joaquin Silva discusses the company's technology and business model, the siloed nature of utilities, and future opportunities for VERGE technologies in commercial building automation and logistics.

GreenBiz: Can you provide a short overview of On-Ramp Wireless?

joaquin silvaJoaquin Silva: We started the company almost four years ago now, and developed a wireless system from the ground up for sensing and metering applications. We've applied that technology to utility automation and industrial automation, where metering and sensing are required.

Our technology has the ability to cover very large geographic areas with minimal infrastructure and deliver a two-way reliable wireless system in free spectrum for those types of applications.

GB: Can you describe On-Ramp's value proposition? How do you stand out among competitors?

JS: Our core technology gives us range, capacity, robustness, security, but also a unique business model. If you look at the smart meter AMI space, most companies try to develop and control the end-to-end AMI system, including the metering, metered data management, and cost system.

Some specialty suppliers -- like Trilliant or Silver Spring Networks, which do end-to-end system management -- sell directly to the utility to control the whole value chain out of necessity. Our business model is to work with our end customers to promote our technology and network to deliver the end-to-end solution. The technology gets embedded into the metering suppliers and sensor automation vendors and the network can be provided either from a systems integrator or a value-added manufacturer.

We can do this because we can fundamentally change the cost equation to deliver these types of applications and open up profitability for the entire value chain which is struggling to deliver ROI and turn profits.

While we have a proprietary technology at the base core, one clarification is that pretty much all AMI technologies are proprietary on some level; there is no common interoperability certification process. There is no complete standards-based AMI end-to-end system in the market today that is viable.

GB: What opportunities do you see working with utilities, either here or abroad?

JS: We're really in the early days of utilities transforming their business with IT and wireless communications. There's been discussion of smart grid and various pockets of automation have occurred over the last 10 years or so.

But it's early in terms of transforming business processes and tying together organizational silos. If you look at a utility, they’ve got the IT organization, transmission distribution, metering, billing and so forth.

Using technology and new business processes to automate those disparate units and drive better service and more efficiency is really the name of the game. It's about breaking down those silos between the utility to take full advantage of what the technology can do and help solve cross-functional automation challenges to transform their business.

GB: What are the smart grid deployment challenges for telecom carriers in working with utilities?

JS: All utilities have devices in challenging locations -- below ground, for example, or in rural areas. Carriers aren't going to be able to extend their coverage to underground assets that are transformers with pad-mounted lockers or vaults, or remote parts of the infrastructure. It's too expensive to be pervasive to a lot of the distribution grid assets. Our network can be backhauled or integrated with the carrier's network to deliver an end-to-end solution and extend the coverage of the cellular network.

Power consumption for utilities that have water or gas assets or sensors need to be battery operated. A cellular system isn't going to hit a 10- to 20-year battery life. That's not what it's designed for. [Our technology] can aggregate battery-operated devices, and again be backhauled by cellular communications.

There's a virtue in having a private, reliable, redundant network that's owned and operated by the utility. A lot of the investor-owned utilities prefer an engagement model, since they want control a certain level of reliability.

GB: What additional vertical opportunities do you see for machine-to-machine (M2M) wireless technologies?

JS: Most commercial buildings in the U.S. and abroad are not two-way automated down to the submeter, HVAC system, thermostat, or various things that consume energy. So it makes sense for a utility or an energy service company to be able to aggregate disparate buildings, particularly those that are small – 50,000 square feet to 1 million square feet – for the cost of completely retrofitting to an advanced building automation system.

Our wireless system can deploy sensors and submeters and provide a low-cost system for energy intelligence. That's an example of an adjacent market that we're already working on with our utility partners. And I think it's quite promising of what our technology can do to tilt the cost equation there.

We did some early exploration for logistics in asset tracking, and monitoring machines and people. As a startup, you have to focus on something first. I think those could be next-gen markets, such as tracking rail containers, but right now there's plenty of opportunity in the electric, water, gas, utility automation, and oil markets.

Smart meter photo via Shutterstock.