Tollgrade Communications Squeezes New Efficiency from Older Utility Lines
In most places, if you happen to lose electric power, the only way the utility learns about it is if you call in to report it. That’s a relic of the way the power grid was built in the late 1800s and early decades of the 20th century - a one-way delivery system flowing from large power plants to the consumer. But today’s soaring demand for electricity results in equipment breakdowns on that outdated grid, causing power outages. Extensive maintenance is required, but repairs are often slow, resulting in angry customers and lost sales for the power companies. Yet many of these outages could be prevented.
Two-Way Smart Grid
To achieve that, electric companies are now transitioning the nation’s power delivery network into a two-way smart grid system. Its goal is to accommodate customer needs more efficiently while helping to prevent outages from happening. It enables the utility to respond more quickly when outages do occur. But it is a huge and expensive undertaking. Monitoring and controlling the grid involves deploying a whole battery of devices to provide detailed information about grid conditions back to the power company in real-time, enabling them to evaluate its performance and optimize it.
Tollgrade Communications, which moved last year from Cheswick into Cranberry Business Park, is one of the leading manufacturers of products and software designed to collect, analyze, and communicate precisely this sort of instantaneous information. Its current and prospective customers are the operators of power grids in Europe, South America, the U.S., and Canada. And that’s only part of their $50-plus million a year business.
The other part involves monitoring the performance of telephone and broadband access to help their users maintain high-quality, dependable service. In fact the company’s name, Tollgrade, comes from the old telephone industry jargon which recognized that not all phone lines were satisfactory for toll calls. The highest quality lines were identified as toll-grade. And today, its namesake company continuously tests more than 250 million phone lines worldwide.
Much of the technology Tollgrade uses to collect and analyze network information is proprietary. The company maintains a wall of patents to protect the ways it senses, aggregates, and interprets critical performance data. A lot of that research and development takes place in Cranberry, where 55 of its 120 employees report to work.
LightHouse® is the brand name of Tollgrade’s utility monitoring product line. It consists of sensors clamped to medium voltage power lines that monitor and communicate information, 24/7, along with software to analyze the data. With that information in hand, utility companies can pinpoint outage problems to fix them more effectively, while decreasing outage times.
Until last year, private investors could buy shares of Tollgrade on the NASDAQ stock exchange. But a San Francisco investors group saw the company’s business offering as a strategic fit, and in May of 2011, Golden Gate Capital acquired all of Tollgrade’s outstanding shares - bringing new business savvy, new capital, and new development opportunities to the 25-year-old company. It also validated the company’s move, a few months earlier, into its new Cranberry Township headquarters.
CEO Edward H. Kennedy
“Cranberry is an up and coming, thriving area,” Tollgrade CEO Edward H. Kennedy explained. “It’s a good family area where people want to live. But it is also an educated area with a strong high-tech atmosphere and a solid technical talent pool to draw from. Cranberry is a great place to run a business from; plus the landlord here, Dick Donley, is a very progressive thinker who runs this high tech facility in a very, very efficient manner.
“When people think of high tech, they think of Silicon Valley or Rt. 28 in Boston or the Washington, D.C. area. But we have a lot of technology in this area,” he added. “And there are some sophisticated developments going on here that probably couldn’t be done most other places because the talent base in Cranberry is very specific.”
“We’re very happy here. The employees really appreciate the new office facilities and the Cranberry area. When we have visitors come in, there’s an infrastructure to support business - a lot of different hotels, a lot of different restaurants and shopping. It’s a nice area; people enjoy coming here.”