Future Forward Full Interview: Infrastructure Operators Increasingly Look to Industrial Wireless Networks
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Stewart Kantor, CEO of Full Spectrum, helped develop a new wireless network connectivity standard that’s helping critical infrastructure operators in the electric utility, water utility, oil and gas, transportation, and defense industries establish their own private networks built to handle industrial communications.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background of your education and work experience before Full Spectrum.
Kantor: I’ve been in the cellular, or wireless, industry since 1991. I spent most of my early career working with the large carriers like AT&T and BellSouth, both domestically and internationally in the wireless industry, growing out the early days of cellular. Around 2000, I transitioned over to the wireless networking side, and worked for Nokia networks and another company called VYO, all focused on developing broadband wireless technology primarily for consumer applications. Then in 2006, myself and Menashe Shahar formed Full Spectrum to focus on a very specific market for machine-to-machine applications.
In terms of my education background, I have an undergraduate degree from Columbia University and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on finance. So my educational background doesn’t necessarily tie directly to what I’ve been involved in, developing wireless technology and systems since the late 1980s, early 1990s.
V1 Media: Briefly describe Full Spectrum, its history, what the company does and what you do for the company.
Kantor: Full Spectrum was formed in 2006 and was funded in 2008 to develop technology for industrial, wireless applications. At the time, our core focus was on what they called the smart grid and helping to automate electric grids using wireless technology as well as developing proprietary technology that we patented.
Since that time period, we’ve broadened our mission to include many different industrial applications. Historically, it was focused on automation of electric grids and critical applications, but now we’ve expanded into rail and transportation applications, oil and gas automation, and now even for drones—mission critical and industrial drone applications. Historically, we focused on machine-to-machine, and now with the acceleration with industrial internet applications, we’re broadening to cover more markets.
In terms of my function at the company, I am the CEO and one of the co-founders. I am involved in overall strategy and market focus, and also day-to-day operations. Menashe Shahar is our CTO and other co-founder, and his background is in electrical engineering and wireless technology. He originally worked in the Israeli military in developing communications systems for defense applications.
V1 Media: What are some of the key technologies and differences in industrial networks vs. what we would call a traditional network, and why are traditional networks insufficient for utilities?
Kantor: We often come back to three core points: security, availability and reliability. If you think about industrial applications, and specifically using electric grids as an example, providing electricity is a core critical function for daily operation for consumers and businesses. And to that end, the utilities need to make sure, for health and safety, that people have electricity, and that includes the cellular operators.
They view their job as having to have a system available, even when all other systems are down—due to weather or hurricanes, earthquakes, fires—they still need their connectivity to make sure they can restore power as quickly as possible and get people back online.
Their networks need to be available when all other networks are down. So if you look at cellular networks, their backup power time at their towers is limited to a certain number of hours. Utility companies can keep backup power for several weeks during the restoration process. So even how the networks are designed, in terms of availability, are different.
Another key component in industrial networks is the data resides at the edge of the network. In consumer networks, almost all the data is already hosted on the cloud, so the way the data gets delivered is very different. In cellular networks, they’re mostly focused on providing a huge amount of downstream capacity with limited upstream. In an industrial network, it’s inverted, where almost all the data traffic is upstream and very little downstream. So just the general network design for an industrial wireless network is very different.
In terms of coverage, industrial networks go everywhere, both in populated and unpopulated areas. Consumer networks are very focused on traffic where consumers are. So the patterns of usage are very different in where services are delivered.
The other is security, which is the need to have access to the network at all times in a secure way, where somebody else can’t get in and take control of the grid or of a railroad, so the security components are very important. And then, also related to availability, is if one of these networks is overloaded, then you can’t get your data traffic through in the right amount of time. So there’s a combination of all these items that differentiate the network.
V1 Media: You helped develop a new connectivity standard, 802.16S. Can you briefly describe that, and tell me why and how it was developed?
Kantor: We participated in the development of what we call 802.16S, and the effort was led by the Electric Power Research Institute, also known as EPRI, and the Utility Technology Council, two research and support organizations for the utility industry, both in the U.S. and internationally. They became aware of our technology in 2015 and felt that its core components were important enough that it should be a standardization for the industry, where other companies can come together and develop technology around it.
So we kicked that process off in 2015, and the standard was officially published in 2017, in October, which was a very aggressive timeline for the new standard, but it had the support of these key industrial organizations. And it was developed because of the gaps that occur in consumer networks, and how they were not addressing the needs of industrial wireless networks.
V1 Media: Can you help me better understand what the 802.16S standard does and why it’s needed?
Kantor: So in the same way we all use wifi today, which is 802.11, another wireless standard, 802.16S enables other manufacturers and content creators to come in and develop hardware and software for applications, so this standardization process allows the market to grow because there are more participants, both users—people willing to use the technology—and people developing based on the rules of the technology.
So if there was just one company making wifi, we would all be vulnerable to that one company and their ability to serve the market. Today, there are many people who develop wifi chips and support the market, and the evolution of the way wifi works, where it’s constantly being improved and made better.
A standard allows users to not be tied to one single company and allows for interoperability.
V1 Media: Why do infrastructure companies and utilities need industrial networks, and how might this standard help them? And how might this standard be applicable in improving their networks?
Kantor: One example I’ve given recently is the ability for the electric grid to switch from one utility substation to another, seamlessly, so there’s no drop in power to the end users. We have a customer who supplies electricity to major government installations and hospitals. In the electric grid, you have multiple lines feeding a geographic area. If one of the lines goes down, they want to be able to switch to the other line without any power outage, and it needs to occur in fractions of a second to avoid the power outage.
If you were to try and put it on another kind of network like a cellular network, it would take too long for the traffic to pass to handle that application. So that’s an example of where the utility grid, or electric grid, needs connectivity in a different way than from what you would experience on a cellular network or other type of data network.
Additionally, security is very important, in terms of not allowing other individuals or governments getting access into the critical functioning of the electric grid, where they could cause disastrous situations. We’ve already seen this happen where our grid has been attacked both domestically and internationally. So it’s the ability to have a separate network, and to keep bad actors and vandalism out of our core infrastructure.
V1 Media: Are there any other examples of how industrial networks might be used?
Kantor: In rail, both commercial and commuter, where you’re operating the network, and their critical functions in how the rail operates in terms of stopping, starting and signaling. One of the key concepts in rail is “positive train control,” which was identified as a weakness in the rail industry, where the ability to be monitoring the train at all times, in terms of its speed, and the ability to react to different situations that occur on the rail.
Oil and gas fields have similar requirements. And now we’re moving into other types of applications like industrial drones, where you’re looking at drones that weigh 100 pounds and are delivering items, so the needs are greater than just taking pictures. It’s a whole host of different applications and vertical markets that goes beyond utilities.
V1 Media: Are there any estimates of how much installing such a network’s system would be? Are there cost-benefit ratios?
Kantor: These networks tend to be at a premium to the capital cost you would outlay if you were to try and use a cellular network. However, the operating costs are dramatically lower, because you’re not paying an ongoing usage fee. I would say that, in general, it’s at a premium to consumer cellular service, but you start to reach parity at about five years, between having your own network and using a cellular network.
So the networks are competitive in terms of cost. They have a greater capital outlay than operations, but to some extent, industrial customers prefer capital outlay to ongoing operations and maintenance expense. I would say it’s at a premium to acquiring cellular service—maybe 20 to 30% premium—but it comes with all these other benefits, which is security, reliability and availability.
The ROIs become very easy if there’s just a couple events in an industrial network: a power outage or a severe power outage—the cost associated with that can be very high, and that’s when these networks start to pay back very quickly because they’re available when the other networks are not. So almost all of the implementations have very positive return on investment. The issue is, because these are large networks, getting the technology introduced and up and running tends to be the first hurdle. So it’s the planning of the network and the operational side that tend to become the early challenges in doing these types of networks.
V1 Media: Can you tell me a the cost for a typical utility user, what they might actually be looking at spending, and then compare that to what it would be on a consumer network?
Kantor: To get started in a small network, the cost can be roughly a half-million dollars. These networks, however, can scale to hundreds of thousands of devices that are running over the network. And as they scale, the investment can go into the tens of millions of dollars. But to start these networks, the costs are relatively low. Our customers typically buy a small system to get started, try and understand the technology, and then they grow as required. They can continue to expand and leverage the infrastructure to have more and more applications running.