Tait Podcasts: #3 – DMR Voice and Data

Philip Mullins - Webinar Invite

Philip Mullins, Solutions Marketing Manager, Tait Communications

Episode 3 of the Tait podcast is officially here. Today we talk with Philip Mullins, a senior solutions manager at Tait. Philip is passionate about Voice and Data networks and Utilities, so we asked him to cast some vision about the future of Critical Communications.  In this podcast, we discuss:

  • How a DMR Voice and Data network gives Utilities an “Innovation Platform” to optimize their business and improve productivity
  • The Tait passion to give our customers choice
  • How to respond to the cyber security threat
  • The history of Utility networks and the three primary industry transformations
  • How a radio network can prevent outages
  • How Smart Grid and Electric vehicles will affect the future of Utilities
  • How a voice and data network can drastically reduce truck roll outs and instantly start saving your business cash
  • And much more!

Philip has some fascinating ideas and practical advice on how to quickly improve productivity and maximize ROI. If you’re interested in learning more or trialling the GridLink solution he mentions, then we recommend this flyer. Make sure you listen to the podcast, and don’t forget to leave a comment sharing your thoughts.

Don’t forget to Subscribe to our podcast and if you’re on iTunes click this link.

Podcast transcript:

Evan Forester: Hello, everyone. Welcome once again to the Tait Podcast. My name is Evan Forester, and I am here with Philip Mullins, the senior solutions marketing manager. Philip, how are you?
Philip Mullins: I’m good. I’m good.

Evan Forester: Would you mind just telling everyone a little bit about who you are?
Philip Mullins: Sure. So I’m focused on utilities. I have a background in supporting utilities. I’ve done it for maybe the past 10 or 15 years. I’ve been focused on smart grid, in particular, for at least eight of those 10 years. I’ve really been focused on communications and how do we create more and more opportunity for utilities to optimize capital investment and voice infrastructure, such as selecting DMR as a standard. So yeah, this is my little world that I live in. It’s a great place to be. We’re at the cusp of real innovation here.

Evan Forester: Okay. Great. So today, we’re going to be talking about DMR voice and data networks and how that can help utilities. Just the first question for you, Philip. We talk about DMR being a voice and data network. The big question is: what are the advantages of that? Why would you want to have one network running both voice and data?
Philip Mullins: There’s really two different reasons. So the first reason is the way the systems are designed. So it’s designed as a mission-critical voice system. So it is built very tough, has great resiliency. Then when you can utilize data on top of that, you get that advantage inherently of a very resilient mission-critical type design. The second thing that’s important is that it takes a lot of people to run a network of these types, in terms of its complexity. There’s a lot of service management responsibilities associated with that. When you can reuse that staff for both, you safe head count. So your total cost of ownership is much lower than if you replicate networks, and you have to have staff that support each. So there’s a lot of synergies around running dual-use over the same network.

Evan Forester: Okay. So there are other data network options available, obviously, but DMR, because it is a mission-critical system, you know it’s going to be more reliable.
Philip Mullins: Right. Exactly. Exactly.

Evan Forester: Okay. And what are some of the other data networks out there?
Philip Mullins: There’s many, many proprietarian standards-based. Most common, especially in the United States market, is YMX, based on IEEE802.16D. So it’s a fairly simple, similar to a WiFi Hotspot but on a much larger scale. Again, it’s very capable. It’s very much needed by the industry, and they will utilize it. The real opportunity you get from DMR is that you can target where you use it.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: You can use it less. You could potentially avoid having license spectrum. Even acquiring that can be tough. But if you do, it’s very expensive. So this is a potential opportunity to allow you to target it, use a lesser design standard, use unlicensed spectrum, and then have DMR as a backup to that link.
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: So at a minimum, you can still reach it.
Evan Forester: Okay.
Philip Mullins: There’s also mesh networks. This is very common for this advanced metering environment. Again, those are very capable technologies that can do the similar-type things. But if you think about it, it was purpose-built for metering. Its entire design, the way vendors bid it into the systems, is very skinny. They’re trying to win the bid. So they’re not building it robustly. They’re not attempting to manage performance.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: So they’re going from one meter read a month to 96 meter reads a day. So they sized to that very appropriately, but they don’t really size to more functionality, like distribution, automation, some of the other data type applications. So it’s just not built for that purpose.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: It can do some of those things, where it’s easy and where it’s inexpensive. Utilities will do it, and they should do it.
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: But it’s certainly not universal, and it’s not wide area. You’ll never see mesh out in the rural environments. So again, we’re very complementary to other technologies, but I don’t think that we’ll displace them. I think that we’ll just allow them to be targeted where you can optimize kind of your capital investments, as well as kind of minimize your operating expenses through cellular and things like that.
Evan Forester: Okay.
Philip Mullins: Again, there’s also the public domain, the public carrier networks, which are also very capable of doing many of these things. They’re less likely to be used for control functionality.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: They’re far more susceptible to negative events, heavy, unexpected loading when there’s a fire or whatever. So if you think about it, again, the DMR environment is protected, designed, and sized for that environment, sized for the worst-case scenario, for where you’re rolling all the trucks at the same time to go address a problem. So a lot more confidence in those systems to support control-type functionality.
But again, the all will go exists in the same utility. It’s a matter of we bring a new alternative to our customers to really optimize where and how they use other technologies.
Evan Forester: Yeah, and that’s what’s great about the DMR, or one of the things that’s great. Most utilities need a voice system.
Philip Mullins: Absolutely.

Evan Forester: So the fact that you can get a voice system that also has data, and you always have that backup available to you, or not even necessarily backup. It can be used as primary functionality for different things.
Philip Mullins: Right. I think that it has a role in both. Right?
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: So it will be the primary in environments where it’s more critical, where it’s more predictable in terms of latency and bandwidth requirements. It’s a very good backup to other environments, where you might use what I would consider a lesser technology in terms of mission critical and how well it can support that.
But again, one of the alternatives utilities use today is satellite as a backup to like YMAX or cellular. So this is an alternative to satellite, which can be very expensive, fairly complex. And again, the data goes outside of your control and your visibility. You can’t really monitor a satellite network.
Evan Forester: No.
Philip Mullins: Just like you can’t monitor a cellular network. Our systems allow you to monitor the communication end point and correlate it to the grid environment, so that when a device like a Scada RTU fails to respond to a pull, you can go check the GridLink terminal to make sure it’s still there.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: If it’s there, it’s an electric guy out. If it’s not there, it’s in a communications guy out. But that difference saves them potentially one or two truck rolls. So there’s a very good economic case to be made for using DMR.

Evan Forester: Yeah. So you’ve already mentioned some of the uses for DMR data. Are there any other ways that utilities can enhance or improve their productivity, using DMR data?
Philip Mullins: Yeah. The one way I would think about it is almost as an innovation platform. Right? So there are lots of things it could potentially do. They could use it to unlock gates and fences at substations. They could use it to validate and act as kind of a second channel, what I kind of view as a control plane for grid infrastructure. So you can separate common communications from this control plane type communication. So all the cheaper technologies could potentially do monitoring. Whereas DMR might do all the control functionality in response to that monitoring.

Evan Forester: Okay. So speaking of control, distribution automation is something Tait has really been pushing, to do with DMR. What advantages are there to running distribution automation over a DMR network, as opposed to other networks or Fiber something to that effect?
Philip Mullins: Well, first off, Fiber is just exceptionally expensive. While you will see a lot of Fiber to substations, and over time you’ll see more and more of that, you’re not likely to see it traverse down feeders into some of the various devices, reclosers, relays, capacitor banks, and controllers. So we are in position to provide that kind of functionality in a very nice, robust way, on a mission-critical system that has synergies around service management. So it all comes back to the economic case of doing that.

I will say that there are utilities who do automation over lots of different types of networks, but they don’t get the synergy of a common voice and data network. Again, it allows us to give them the flexibility to decide when and where they will use different technologies.
Distribution automation today still tends to be isolated from the end-to-end, generation-to-meter energy value chain, if you will. So there is an opportunity to apply it at just the right places without necessarily kind of displacing all other technologies. So it still provides a very good set of choices. It’s really about giving our customers choices.

Evan Forester: Now, you mentioned how it can work with other things. LTE is really here. Some people would say it’s still coming. Some people would say it’s already here. How do you see DMR working with LTE?
Philip Mullins: So again, this is where there’s a lot of differences across the globe. The one thing that we have at least found up to this point is that there is not a lot of choices for industrial-grade LTE. It’s still kind of focused on the consumer/commercial model. Therefore, it has lots of additional infrastructure in complexity that frankly provides very little benefit to a utility. If they were going to–so that’s kind of a public — I’m sorry — a private LTE environment that that applies to.
Evan Forester: Sure.
Philip Mullins: In a public domain, it’s being used already, and it’s just like any other cellular modem. It is true that it has substantially better functionality than what 3G-type technologies [inaudible:00:10:59] may have. But it is still public. You still aren’t able to integrate end-point management of an LTE device with grid management.
So when that RTU fails to respond, you’re blind as to whether it’s the communications system or the device itself. So it does have a role. It’s certainly very common for workforce management embedding LTE in laptops and tablets and trucks.
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: The utilities can’t compete with that. They could never afford to build that level of robustness in a private broadband system. So it’s complementary. All these technologies are really complementary to one another, and it gives you yet another set of choices on how you might apply those.

Evan Forester: Right. Now, the data information that’s required for things like distribution automation is quite small packets of info.
Philip Mullins: Yes.

Evan Forester: So that’s why we can use DMR. Correct?
Philip Mullins: Correct. Correct. Yeah. In fact, it’s interesting. There’s several different scenarios. Under the more common centralized scada architecture, very little bandwidth requirements. Even the capacity to hold information is relatively limited in the devices. So maybe one kilobyte of data. It’s really more about capturing any deviation from some set of limits that you might set for voltage current. There may be other types of metrics that you would apply.

There are other devices that are on the system that do require greater bandwidth than what DMR could ever hope to provide. They have embedded two gig of storage, and they hold files called ‘oscillography files’ that give you several hundred samples per minute of a waveform and allow you to really analyze grid and stability, based on some historical record.

Some of these are being turned into real-time type streams coming out of the device. Again, we’re simply not capable to support that, but we don’t have to. Right? We can allow that to exist within an LTE type environment or a private broadband environment, and yet we can still act as that control tool and isolate that.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: I would say the other part of this that’s really important is the cyber security threat to the public domain is tremendously greater than what you’re going to see on a DMR network.
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: Especially a well-implemented DMR environment that controls access to the administration environment, things like that.
Evan Forester: Right. So if there were a disaster-type event, whether it’s natural or terrorist or something to that effect, the DMR network is going to be the most secure, and it’s still going to have that functionality for the key things.
Philip Mullins: That base functionality. Absolutely.

Evan Forester: Yeah. Okay. Now, another question. Just in general, you know a lot about utility technology. What has you excited?
Philip Mullins: Several different things. So one is really the integration of renewables and this potential for micro grid and community-based generation. One of the things that’s very strange about the industry is that it’s well over 130 years old. It’s had really three different transformations.

The first one was in the early 1900s, when they went from a DC to AC system. So prior to that, they use alternators, generated DC voltage, and anything connected to it had to be within maybe a mile.

Then in maybe the ’20s, early ’20s, they began to start experimenting with alternating current and developed transmission systems. Kind of what is still today is called T&D, distribution and transmission or transmission and distribution, within the utilities space.

Then the third one, which is just now happening, is really this information-based control of systems and extracting value from that. So smart grid, if you will, is happening now. It is really based on the value of information, this ability to do advanced analytics.

One of the things that’s really interesting about how DMR and how GridLink would play into all of this is our solution will prevent somebody from driving to a device and pulling out that 1K file. But that 1K file, in the hands of an analytics engine, will tell you the stress that wires have seen, the stresses that transformers have seen and other systems on the grid have seen. You can start to predict when things might fail.

If you can prevent an outage, that one prevention of an outage will pay for all the investments that led up to that. Because one outage event, especially one significant outage event, can run to the tens of millions of dollars. That’s not even accounting for the economic impact that has on businesses that lose power, families that lose power and have to go run and find a hotel or whatever else they may have to do. So there’s a lot of unaccounted-for loss, economically, that you can prevent.

I love this idea of resilient grids and being able to isolate falls. I love the idea of being able to support electric vehicles one day. Hopefully one day, that will be the dominant vehicle. Right? The way the grid is built today, and has been for the last 130 years or more, you simply cannot have two-way energy flows. It would make everything break. So the new smart grid is being designed to support that energy flow.

My favorite piece of all this really is centered around the electrical vehicle. If I owned an electric vehicle, which I don’t, but I wouldn’t mind, I would not only be able to charge it at home, but I’d be able to sell electricity back into the grid from my car battery to lower my bill, to help a utility address peak demand. They could tap into my car, pull out some of that energy, and they could avoid doing things like running what’s called a peaker station, which is exceptionally expensive to operate, or doing things like unplanned energy trades.

So when you’re an energy trader buying bulk electric, you’re doing it kind of in this common market environment. But as soon as you have to do it in an unplanned way, then it’s cutthroat. Then it’s very expensive, and you don’t get the same kind of basis points in terms of how you’re being charged for kilowatt hour or megawatt hour.

So yeah, there’s a lot of opportunities associated with smart grid, electric vehicles, all these other things, which is really quite fascinating. I think the electric vehicle, in the future, will be your home UPS. Right?
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: When the lights actually go out, maybe instead of selling it back to the utility, I can still run my house.
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: It’s fairly close to a common household, in terms of its load and its power characteristic. Now, it won’t run your house endlessly. It might last for an hour, two hours, but that’s better than nothing.
Evan Forester: Sure.
Philip Mullins: It’s interesting because it’s a byproduct of a car I bought. It’s not some home generation system I bought for backup power.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: So the potential there is really just stunning.

Evan Forester: Something you’ve mentioned a couple times, that I think is just a really practical and tangible benefit of distribution automation and all the great automation, is preventing truck rollouts. Could you just talk about that a little bit more and how DMR can help prevent . . . save money and prevent utilities from having to send out trucks?
Philip Mullins: Right. Yeah, and it’s really the most common return on investment that you’re going to be able to claim for a DMR GridLink type solution. When there’s an outage, if it’s a widespread outage, a utility will send all of its trucks out. One group of people will go do assessments and look at . . . Is there wires sparking somewhere? Should they take action there? Those people don’t even have the equipment with them to actually take action. They’re just doing assessments. They’ll report that back in, and another truck will roll. Right?

If I could assess the damage remotely through GridLink, then I could only send the right guy to the right place at the right time with the right tools. The savings represented there is substantial. The typical truck roll in a grid operations environment is about $500. It’s based on some analysis done around Center Point Energy and their smart grid deployment. There’s other people out there like Duke who. . . Their entire grid automation program, 80% of the return on investment was truck rolls.
Evan Forester: Wow.
Philip Mullins: So it’s an enormous part of this. A lot of that is because the advanced analytics piece of this hasn’t been implements, or it’s not uniform today. But once you have the data, and you can acquire that data without a truck roll, then you can start applying analytics to that. You can start to discover all kinds of interesting information around where I have weaknesses in the grid architecture and where I should beef up things, where I am vulnerable to cascading failures. So if one transformer goes out, the next substation down the line would be damaged by that.
Evan Forester: So you’re not only having a quicker and faster response time to problems, but you can actually start preventing problems.
Philip Mullins: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Evan Forester: It’s great too because it’s so many benefits, I think, of technology. Sometimes, people say, “Oh, well in five years, you’ll have this benefit.” Whereas this, it’s today.
Philip Mullins: Right.
Evan Forester: You can start saving money on even just gas prices alone of sending out trucks. You know?
Philip Mullins: Absolutely.
Evan Forester: Just right off the bat.
Philip Mullins: Yeah, and it’s funny because it’s not really framed as this green solution, meant to be ecologically friendly.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: That’s not what motivates them, frankly, but it is a byproduct of it.
Evan Forester: It is.
Philip Mullins: Again, it goes beyond just that initial truck roll. If you were to step back and look historically at where I send trucks a lot, I can very selectively apply this to those places that cost me the most to support as a grid operator. Maybe that’s rural, or maybe that’s that segment of the grid that’s very old. Right? The original part of the grid.

But again, it gives you flexibility. As soon as you have the data, as soon as you can start to really understand where my pain points are in terms of cost and operating expenses, you can start to apply it in a very targeted way.

Evan Forester: Okay. So last question. Tait’s been working on this solution for distribution automation called GridLink for a while now. People are test-driving it. Different utility organizations are doing demos of it. If someone listening wants to try it out, what do they need to do?
Philip Mullins: Just reach out to us. Go to our website. There’s contact information out there. There’s an industry tab on the page that allows you to kind of dig deeper in what we’re doing and who we’re doing things with. But absolutely, just reach out to us. We’re eager to have the industry guide us as we make decisions about what’s the next protocol to support.
Evan Forester: Right.
Philip Mullins: So get out of the box. We’re doing DMP3, and we’re doing IC 6870. But there’s a lot of legacy out there, modbus and other things that we need to get onto our development roadmap. We would rather be pulled and steered by the industry we’re serving than for us to sit back in the lab somewhere and pick fortunes. Right?
Evan Forester: Sure.
Philip Mullins: Right? So even if utilities aren’t interested in it today, they can influence how we’re going to develop it in the future and refine it in the future. It’s an opportunity for their industry to participate in our roadmap. It’s invaluable to us, and it’s them pulling things towards their need. So it’s a win/win for both sides, but it takes engagement. It takes a new mindset. Utility needs to believe that they could actually steer technology towards their problem.
Evan Forester: Yeah.
Philip Mullins: That’s new, and we’re seeing it in public safety. Right? In some of the things that we’re actually doing with P-25 and ZillNPD. We need to do the same thing in the utilities, and we need utilities to participate in it. They can bring tremendous value to themselves through us.

Evan Forester: Yeah. So if you are listening to this on the blog, we will have links, both contact information as well as a brochure about the GridLink demo. So you can check that out. But also, we’d love to hear your comments. If you are not listening on the blog, then we’re at blog.taitcommunications.com. We’d love to hear from you, hear your thoughts on distribution automation, DMR voice and data, and then answer any of your questions, or like Philip said, start hearing what your pain points are and working to create solutions around it. So Philip, thank you so much for joining us.

Philip Mullins: You bet. My pleasure.
Evan Forester: We will talk to you guys later on the next Tait podcast.


  1. Terry Griffiths says:

    Interesting food for thought there

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