On-Ramp Wireless has spent the past few years putting its low-power, long-range wireless technology to use in applications ranging from smart meters and grid sensors to oil and gas well monitors and smart streetlights.
At last month’s DistribuTECH conference, the San Diego-based startup announced some new partnerships, including new metering partners MeterLinq in Italy and EDMI in Singapore, and another with Energate to extend two-way demand response connectivity to load control devices previously served by one-way pager and radio networks.
In the meantime, its work as comms provider for General Electric’s point-to-multipoint smart meter business has grown, albeit slowly, to include projects in the Dominican Republic and on the Caribbean island of Aruba.
All told, On-Ramp’s Random Phase Multiple Access technology now enables about 30 networks, covering more than 100,000 endpoints, according to Francis Costello, senior vice president of product management. But if its technology can meet its scalability claims, that roster of endpoints could reach into the millions, or even the billions, set to be deployed in the coming internet-of-things revolution, he said.
“Everyone in the industry is talking about the broad value of these communications networks for multiple applications,” Costello told me in an interview last week. For example, Canadian oil and gas pipeline operator Enbridge (an On-Ramp investor) is using the technology for pipeline monitoring, and Texas-based WellAware is monitoring wellheads across 55,000 square miles of the United States, he said.
“We’ve done other pilots with load control technology on the industrial side -- agricultural pumps, irrigation systems, those kinds of things,” he said. “With a broadly deployed, wide-area network that has coverage across your service territory, a lot becomes possible.”
Specifically, On-Ramp is targeting the low-power wide-area networking field, which research firm Machina Research predicts will grow to encompass 3 billion endpoints by 2023. The firm’s definition lays out some stringent requirements for qualifying technologies, including “connectivity modules” that cost $5 or less and can run for 10 years or more on a single AA battery.
A short list of companies working on the same challenge includes French startup Sigfox, which raised $115 million from investors including Telefonica and Vodafone earlier this year and has several million devices networked in Western Europe; U.K. startup Neul, acquired by Huawei for a reported $25 million in 2014; and Southern California company Semtech, which has brought partners including IBM and Cisco into an alliance to standardize products around its LoRa (long range) wireless technology.
On-Ramp has raised at least $67 million, according to a tally of the company’s funding announcements and regulatory filings to date, with investors including Enbridge and Energy Technology Ventures, the joint venture of General Electric, NRG Energy and ConocoPhillips.
Compared to oil and gas companies, the electric utility industry may be a less attractive target for On-Ramp, considering that so many U.S. utilities have already deployed smart meters. Even so, there are plenty of additional devices that need low-power, long-distance connectivity, Costello said -- as well as ways to reach the small but significant number of meters that the private mesh networks or public cellular networks used for most U.S. deployments can’t reach.
Take On-Ramp’s marquee customer, hometown utility San Diego Gas & Electric. SDG&E now uses On-Ramp to connect about 3,000 fault circuit indicators, a number that’s set to grow to 10,000 by 2017, as well as 500 transmission tower light monitors and 700 transformer monitors, some of them in underground vaults that are hard to reach with other wireless technologies.
All of that is done from 35 access points, covering about 4,500 square miles of territory. Yet, it’s only using about one-tenth of a percent of its network’s capacity, he said. That means that adding additional devices is, “from the network perspective, essentially free.”
To be sure, these are low-bandwidth, high-latency connections, unsuited to streaming video, electric waveform data or other needs better suited to cellular, Wi-Fi or other high-throughput technologies. But for connecting lots and lots of devices with relatively simple data collection needs, “if you look at more of the internet-of-things applications, that’s a differentiator,” he said.
On-Ramp’s push from the utility industry to broader IOT ambitions matches the moves being made by the biggest smart grid networking contenders in the field, including Silver Spring Networks, Itron and Cisco, Landis+Gyr and Trilliant, to name a few. While these companies’ technologies are distinct from the low-power wide-area crowd, they share a long-term goal -- to take networks originally built to connect one set of devices -- namely, smart meters -- and put them to use to connect an ever-expanding list of endpoints.