Case Study: The ServiceStar Network

May 17, 2006

The ServiceStar Network - A Case Study

Market Forces

Convergence in the Utility Sector

Today’s utilities face increasing pressure to maximize the capability of their wireless infrastructure while minimizing operational and developmental costs.  Unprecedented uncertainty and business volatility are transforming the landscape in the utility sector, as it becomes newly competitive, profit-oriented, and responsive to a fickle and savvy clientele.  The key to developing a successful strategy is to recognize that it is only part of a larger strategy -- one in which modern utilities must reinvent themselves. 

Several key factors are driving this transformation:

  • Consolidation - Corporate mergers and acquisitions both mandate and complicate the task of unifying workforces and infrastructure.  Many utilities have dozens of disparate wireless networks supporting both voice and data; these legacy systems, which are often comprised of a mixed technology base, must be unified, integrated, and standardized with emergent technology.  
  • Competition - Deregulation is fueling price and service competition where none previously existed.  Consumers are seeking value, reliability, and flexibility, and are exercising choice with increasing frequency.
  • Security - Post-9/11 security analyses have revealed widespread, systemic opportunity for improvement.
  • Technology Evolution - Consolidation and competition are forcing utilities to do more with less.  Applications enabled with intelligent networking infrastructure are increasingly necessary to service a larger, more diverse, and more demanding clientele.  Workforce automation and mobility capabilities are extending utility networks beyond conventional SCADA and front office functions.

Collectively, these factors represent high-level convergence across the industry -- in administrative functions, in technology, and in business processes.  Industrial wireless infrastructure is the key to addressing and mastering each of these factors; it permits unprecedented levels of technological integration for both new and old technologies, for SCADA and corporate networks, and for fixed and mobile applications.  Managing a utility network strategy, then, consists of managing convergence.

Analyzing The Value of Telemetry Investments

Understanding the Changing Nature of the Utility Sector

The value of telemetry to the utility industry is beyond question. Increasing levels of automation, decreasing complexity for monitoring and repair, better and faster information flow -- these are some of the capabilities that accrue to wise investments in telemetry in the utility industry.  But how does one evaluate the wisdom of an investment? The answer is to analyze the value drivers for an investment, and to segregate them by significance, as follows:

1st Order Value - Those that are easily defined and measured.

2nd Order Value - Those that constitute a minor change in processes, and represent a minimal investment.

3rd Order Value - A paradigm shift in the operation of the business.

Here are some examples of each type:

First Order Drivers

  • Reduction of “windshield” time.
  • Rapid data collection.
  • Timely.
  • Status driven.
  • On-demand polling.
  • Dispatching of technicians as required.
  • Personnel safety.
  • Reduced time in vehicles.
  • Tracking whereabouts of personnel.
  • Reduction in costs.
  • Increase the number of points managed by each field technician.
  • Track overtime hours and costs of field technicians.

Second Order Drivers

  • Typically utilizes sophisticated software -- more than basic alarming functions.
  • Multiple applications utilizing identical device signals.
  • Reliance on “human” intervention for dispatching and response.
  • Automated dispatching -- typically alarm based.
  • “Skin deep” integration into business and operating systems.
  • Telemetry data used for business planning.
  • Planning is typically reactive or response oriented.

Third Order Drivers

  • Realized only when deep integration achieved with IT, business and operational systems.
  • Data integration to ERP systems.
  • Data integration to CRM applications.
  • Near real-to-real time data collection and integration.
  • Predictive and preventative operational activities.
  • Automated “behavioral” based application response without human intervention.

Most telemetry investments in the utility industry are based on 1st order value drivers, for obvious reasons of metric simplicity. The problem is that this type of investment is rarely justified in and of itself. Practical, sustainable telemetry investments are most easily justified by third-order drivers.  As the table above indicates, 3rd-order drivers require extensive review of business processes, infrastructure capabilities, and an eye toward technical extensibility.  As modern utilities are required to compete in an increasingly unregulated market,  the forces of convergence dictate the increasing necessity for third-order driver justification.  The objective, increasingly, must be to use telemetry investments to identify and change business methods - to enable and accelerate convergent technological, regulatory, and commercial capabilities in service to increasingly savvy customers.

About ServiceStar

A Variety of Services and Capabilities

CenterPoint Energy is the third largest publicly traded natural gas delivery company in the United States, with nearly $19 billion in assets and more than $10 billion in annual revenues. CenterPoint Energy serves about 3 million metered customers in 6 states, and manages nearly 13,000 miles of gathering and interstate gas pipelines.

ServiceStar was formed as a division of CenterPoint Energy in 1998. ServiceStar provides communications, software, and data hosting solutions for remote monitoring and control applications; their services include remote automation, measurement, and control for wellhead owners and operators. ServiceStar has 11,500 remote telemetry units (RTUs) currently installed and/or under contract for remote monitoring, representing more than 100,000 individual data element points, and is one of the nation’s largest providers of remote field automation services to energy producers, gatherers, and pipeline companies.  

ServiceStar maintains one of the largest deployed communications infrastructures in the entire energy industry.  Through a combination of owned and leased towers, wireless bandwidth covering 151,000 square miles of IP radio coverage is managed.  Specific expertise includes systems and network integration, project management, site installation with requisite propagation and site studies, antenna site maintenance, and support and repair services.  

The ServiceStar Network

Building a Better Services Network

The ServiceStar network exploits a variety of wireless technologies.  ServiceStar utilizes a combined terrestrial and satellite-based wireless network for data transport which is optimized for dedicated or “on demand” customer connectivity.  Data rates range from 128 kbps to 512 kbps effective throughput, with protocol options for serial connectivity, TCP/IP, or both.  ServiceStar also offers long-range wireless connectivity - up to 15 miles - and provides solutions for both fixed and mobile data applications.


Beginning at the edge of the network, Remote Telemetry Units (RTUs) manage data collection at individual points.  These RTUs are connected to MDS remote radios, which provide wireless connectivity to the network.  These remote  radios communicate wirelessly with MDS point-to-multipoint (PMP) transceivers on centrally-located radio towers.  This data traffic is then backhauled to the ServiceStar Network Operations Center (NOC) in Shreveport, LA via wireless tower hopping or satellite transmission.  Finally, at the NOC, back office servers are used for real-time reporting, data storage, and archival functions.  MDS radios were selected by ServiceStar as best in class for wireless connectivity for these types of applications.


A note about security.  Across the utility industry, security considerations have newfound importance and significance.  Wireless infrastructure must meet increasingly rigorous standards for impenetrability, survivability, and field longevity. Wireless technologies were once the chief problem in security; today, they are often the most sophisticated and advanced solution to the problem, even as public standards are racing to keep up.  The ServiceStar network uses a variety of security technologies to ensure the safety and impenetrability of the network. First and foremost, it must be emphasized that the ServiceStar network is private, with no opportunity for public access.  Wireless Virtual Private Network (VPN) segments are encrypted using 3DES, with a 128-bit effective cypher strength.  Redundant CISCO SecurePix firewalls provide integrated network security, and real-time intrusion detection is provided by CISCO IDS Sensor Technology.

Embracing Network Heterogeneity

Predicating Value on Flexibility

In building and extending private wireless infrastructure, it is important to understand that rote wireless device connectivity is only part of the challenge.  Successful infrastructure investments must go further; they must ensure the ability to perform flexibly. Many types of end devices and protocols must be accommodated in support of a broad spectrum of applications requirements, speeds, and mobility options.  Solid, capable back office infrastructure must accommodate network growth and device proliferation.  The absence of power, flexibility, and extensibility make it difficult to recognize and exploit 2nd and 3rd order value drivers for the network.

The growing complexity and sophistication of utility networks portends equivalent developments in back office support systems, and few utilities have specialized skills in every technology that is necessary to support this growth.  ServiceStar’s response to the growth of technological heterogeneity has been to outsource the back office management of telemetry data.  Doing so has reduced operational costs, improved service responsiveness, and enabled the rapid integration of new technologies and applications as they surface.  Most importantly, it has allowed ServiceStar to salvage legacy investments and focus on its core competencies as a a world-class utility network services provider.

Avoiding Public Carriers

One obvious temptation in providing wireless services to the utility industry is to use public carrier networks for data transport.  ServiceStar has attempted this in the past, but has encountered serious problems -- some of them operational, some of them systemic.  Operational difficulties included overall problems with responsiveness, the lack of access to the Network Operations Center, the lack of dispatch functionality, and an unacceptably high cost per user/device.    Systemic problems were even more troublesome; ServiceStar had no control over system integrity, reliability, and flexibility, and there was a higher likelihood of communications failure under emergency conditions.  These challenges largely stem from differences in business models; utilities approach investments with a substantially longer time horizon that that represented by the traditional life-span of technology in the public carrier networks.  As a result, public carriers have little interest in assisting with the realization of 2nd and 3rd order value drivers for telemetry investments.

Building an Industrial Network

Industrial networks must be extremely capable and reliable, even under the most adverse circumstances.  ServiceStar customers expect performance metrics to far exceed those found in public carrier networks; ServiceStar’s decision to build out private industrial wireless infrastructure was necessitated by these expectations.  Private wireless infrastructure permits ServiceStar to manage technology changes in a sensible fashion, to support interoperability and hybrid network architectures, and to execute long-term contracts based upon proven mission-critical reliability that far exceeds public carrier networks -- 99.8% uptime for the communications infrastructure.  In short, the network has been designed from the ground up for end-to-end wireless industrial applications -- not as an added feature to a voice network.  Network resources are dedicated, solutions are customized, and convenience matches or exceeds public carrier solutions.

Private wireless infrastructure also permits ServiceStar to manage network extensibility.  The network is based upon proven, reliable MDS products that have been time-tested in the field under an enormous variety of operational circumstances.  New functionality, add-ons, and feature capabilities can be added as needs surface for VOIP, mobile data, and other high-speed wireless applications.  Industrial grade extensibility must extend not only forward, but backward, and ServiceStar supports wireless data connectivity for monitoring and managing remote assets, including point-to-multipoint data for wireless SCADA applications; outdated systems can be replaced in a sensible, seamless fashion.  Perhaps most importantly, disparate systems can be standardized using a common, flexible, extensible wireless infrastructure.


Convergence as Competitive Advantage

Convergence in the utility industry is well under way, and utilities must become newly competitive, secure and responsive. ServiceStar and MDS have partnered to build a world-class, private industrial wireless utility network to service the needs of ServiceStar customers with high-speed wireless infrastructure for applications in remote monitoring, SCADA, mobile data, and telemetry.  Beyond speed and coverage, reliability, predictability, and business integration increasingly govern the need to analyze and achieve 3rd-order justifications for infrastructure investments.  1st and 2nd order metrics remain necessary, but they are no longer sufficient.

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