General Electric has long been a major smart meter maker, but the vast majority of those meters use communications networks built by someone else. On Thursday, GE finally launched its own AMI communications solution -- and it has picked On-Ramp Wireless as its networker.

Thursday’s announcement names the San Diego startup as the wireless technology provider for GE Digital Energy’s new Grid IQTM advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) Point-to-Multipoint (P2MP) solution. In other words, it’s a core part of GE’s first-ever foray into mass-market smart meter networking and communications.

And while the press release doesn’t say it quite so explicitly, GE and On-Ramp are promising to do it cheaper, faster and with better coverage than the mesh networking or cellular competition.

For example, with nameplate customer, Minnesota-based utility East Central Energy, On-Ramp and GE were able to cover 4,800 square miles of territory with only 34 access points for On-Ramp’s low-power star networking topology. A typical AMI mesh network would likely need a few thousand node devices to manage the same territory.

“The wide-range metering capabilities of the Grid IQ AMI P2MP solution enable a utility to capture meter data across expansive geographical territories -- from urban to rural areas -- with minimal network infrastructure,” is how GE puts it.

On-Ramp’s proprietary Total Reach Network technology (formerly known as Ultra-Link Processing) also goes places many other wireless technologies don’t, such as underground. The nature of On-Ramp’s communications chips enable them to pick up and respond to low-power, 2.4 gigahertz signals from far-away access points, through manholes, stone walls, underground transformer vault covers and other hard-to-penetrate barriers.

Because GE’s new AMI is point-to-multipoint, it can support all kinds of remote or scarce grid devices without needing to blanket neighborhoods or regions with mesh networked devices. Cellular networks could do a similar point-to-multipoint job, but at much greater cost, Kevin Hell, On-Ramp’s new president and CEO, told me in an interview this week at DistribuTECH.

In fact, “It’s so economical, you can deploy it for a narrow set of applications, like distribution automation, and then scale that over time,” he said. Compared to mesh smart meters, “we’re price-competitive on the endpoint, and on the network access points, we’re significantly cost-advantaged” -- and that doesn’t include the long-term opportunity to add DA, demand response, or even distributed generation and EV management over time, he said.

GE’s Bet on a Bold Wireless Leap

It all seems too good to be true -- a fact that has led some in the industry to take a skeptical, wait-and-see attitude toward On-Ramp. GE itself, which started working with On-Ramp as one of its Ecomagination investment winners back in 2011, took its own time validating the technology, Bruce Bharat, product line leader for GE’s new AMI business, said in a Thursday interview.

There were a lot of overwhelming benefits to the system that seem to be difficult to believe at first,” he said. “We did a lot of testing, and a lot of discussions with companies like San Diego Gas & Electric, who were bought into the technology, before we decided this was the right choice.”

SDG&E is On-Ramp’s biggest customer, with about 35 access points covering about 4,500 square miles of urban and coastal terrain, as well as rugged mountains and deserts. The utility uses it for everything from its distribution grid management, outage detection and fault restoration system to monitoring the blinking lights on its transmission towers and at San Diego’s airport, Ted Myers, On-Ramp’s CTO, told me.

All told, On-Ramp connects about 3,000 fault circuit indicators for SDG&E, a number that’s set to grow to 10,000 by 2017, and is adding about 700 transformer monitors and 500 transmission tower light monitors over the course of this year, he said. It’s also being considered for use in backing up SDG&E’s Itron AMI network, for particularly remote or hard-to-connect customers.

Indeed, besides its work with East Central Energy, GE’s other publicly announced project with its On-Ramp-enabled technology is with Japanese construction giant Haseko Corp., Bharat said. It’s not for smart meters connected to the outside of a lot of buildings, however, but for submeters inside apartment buildings, he said -- a testament to its ability to penetrate metal and concrete walls that pose a challenge to other building-area mesh networks.

A Sea Change for GE’s AMI Aspirations

All told, it’s a significant change from GE’s comms-agnostic approach to partnering with other AMI network providers. Of course, GE will continue to work with partners like Silver Spring Networks, Trilliant, Itron, Elster and the like, just as all of these vendors have been linking partnerships with each other, Bharat said. But in other situations, it will be competing directly with those same vendors, he said.  

“We’ve been communications-agnostic for awhile, and we made this strategic decision to throw our hat in the ring,” Bharat said. Thursday’s launch also introduces GE’s first meter head-end solution, called Smart Metering Operations Suite (SMOS), which GE described as “a complete meter, data and transaction management system” for the AMI networks it will be setting up.  

GE and On-Ramp haven’t identified which other specific customers or markets they’re targeting at present. One interesting potential area for growth is in Minnesota, where East Central Energy is just one of 28 member power cooperatives of an organization called Great River Energy, which has a total of 645,000 member-customers, or 1.7 million people. Great River has a high-throughput wireless network covering its entire service area, built by the now-defunct startup Arcadian Networks -- but the network still works, and it’s serving as the backhaul for East Central’s 34 access points, Bharat said.

GE is looking at deploying P2MP as a turnkey solution for utility customers to own and manage at present -- but it could also use it as part of GE’s smart-grid-as-a-service business, Grid IQ Solutions, he noted. Beyond Japan and the United States, GE is interested in potential applications in Latin America, he added.

As for On-Ramp, GE isn’t its only customer. The company is working in Europe, and has a role in South Korea’s Jeju Island smart grid test bed project. Scott Foster, vice president of smart grid sales, said the startup is talking with about a dozen cooperative and municipal utilities, as well as bigger investor-owned utilities.

Beyond energy, the company is also working in transportation and other M2M environments, he said. The startup has raised about $47 million to date, most recently last summer with an investment from Energy Technology Ventures, the joint venture of General Electric, NRG Energy and ConocoPhillips.

On-Ramp can’t do everything -- it is not a broadband technology, and thus won’t support video or voice or other data-intensive applications. It’s also not a super-low-latency (i.e., high-speed) technology, which means it won’t be doing direct control of critical assets that need that capability -- though it can certainly augment those systems, as it’s doing with SDG&E.

It’s also definitely not a standards-based technology at present. “It’s a brand-new radio technology, starting from the ground up,” is how Bharat described it. Andrew Viterbi, Qualcomm co-founder and On-Ramp advisory board member, describes it as "as significant an innovation for M2M communications as CDMA was for traditional cellular" -- a claim that's sure to draw a lot of scrutiny from engineers.

Myers also noted that On-Ramp is working on the standards front. It’s a founding member of the IEEE 802.15.4 “Low Energy Critical Infrastructure (LECIM) Task Group 4k,” which is creating physical-layer (i.e., radio) amendments to the overarching 802.15.4 standard to facilitate point to multi-thousands endpoint networks for critical infrastructure monitoring devices.