What to Expect When You're Connecting

Replacing Wi-Fi with Cellular Connectivity in Self-Service Kiosks (Electron2Go)

December 06, 2023 Soracom Marketing Season 2 Episode 7
Replacing Wi-Fi with Cellular Connectivity in Self-Service Kiosks (Electron2Go)
What to Expect When You're Connecting
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What to Expect When You're Connecting
Replacing Wi-Fi with Cellular Connectivity in Self-Service Kiosks (Electron2Go)
Dec 06, 2023 Season 2 Episode 7
Soracom Marketing

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This conversation is with Nasim, the founder of Electron2Go. The discussion revolves around the journey of developing Electron2Go, a phone charging hardware solution for schools, airports, stadiums, and public spaces. Nasim opened up about the challenges faced in the process such as the decision to switch to cellular versus wifi connectivity, struggling with FCC and PCI certification, and dealing with supply chain issues. This conversation also contains some guidance for developers contemplating the creation of similar projects.

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

This conversation is with Nasim, the founder of Electron2Go. The discussion revolves around the journey of developing Electron2Go, a phone charging hardware solution for schools, airports, stadiums, and public spaces. Nasim opened up about the challenges faced in the process such as the decision to switch to cellular versus wifi connectivity, struggling with FCC and PCI certification, and dealing with supply chain issues. This conversation also contains some guidance for developers contemplating the creation of similar projects.

Welcome to what to expect when you're connecting a podcast for IOT professionals and the IOT curious. Who find themselves responsible for growing executing or educating others about the challenges with connecting products and services to the internet. You'll learn from industry experts who understand those challenges deeply. And what they've done to overcome them now for your host, Ryan Carlson.

Ryan:

Thanks for joining us on what to expect when you're connecting today. We're here with Nassim who's both a founder and CEO of electron to go a portable power device unit, but not just the normal battery. You keep in your backpack when you're going to the airport, but it's something much, much more Nassim. Thank you for joining us. If you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and what you created, and then we'll move on to what we can learn from you.

Nasim:

Hi, my name is Nassim. I'm a founder of Electron2Go. It's, this is a Supernova Station that we built. It's phone chargers. So this is Electron phone charger. Basically, it's a phone charging station for public places, such as schools, airports any public place. Our focus is education campuses. We're across like 15 to 20 around 20 universities mostly in California, but all over us and coworking spaces. So basically it's an app. You need a phone charger. You scan the QR code. It's a web app. No need to download the app. You just register your phone number and check out the charger and you get a portable charger with built in cables. iPhone. And android and you use it on the go and whenever you're ready, you just return so that's the solution

Ryan:

What people aren't seeing if you're listening to this and you don't see the video is Nassim's holding up a really sexy piece of hardware. It is a geodesic design. It looks like a big beehive with the honeycomb and all of the devices pop out. There's a really nice fit and finish. There's a cork backing on there. So it's got some of those natural materials. So you can set it down on a desk and it's not going to clatter around. And it has two different cables by the looks of it. And as you said, it's both Android and iOS lightning connector.

Nasim:

Yeah, and when I was basically looking for a designer I wanted someone who never ever touched accessories phone accessories who will basically re imagine it like from Something that was never done before and Oyvin did it he's world class designer He was designing for Bangalore So for example, and it's honeycomb for a reason because there are three shapes that expand infinitely it's rectangle, triangle and hexagon. And so he choose a hexagon and so we can connect as many of them if location needs more and everything there has a meaning. Cork because the first we had the idea when we designed it this is will be in restaurants and to make it less geeky so it doesn't look like some alien thing because it's like to make it more look like a natural. So yeah, It's incredible to work with designers that know what they do.

Ryan:

So what's the role that connectivity plays into the product that you've built? You've got a base station and devices. Talk me through that.

Nasim:

Our current station uses cellular connectivity. It's basically we use SIM module 7000A that's North American bands and they have each for each region because of different certification and different bands. Yeah we also had for Japan, but Japan is different. So let's focus on North America. So we use cellular inside each station. We have a cellular module with Soracom SIM cards because we do some commands locally on the station. For example, when user checks out Electron, request goes to server from the client that like, okay, eject a charger on this station. And like from server, the command is received by station via cellular connectivity. So that's what we use and why we use

Ryan:

And so the connectivity allows someone to use the app put a payment on file to check out the device, and then that's what dispenses the actual device itself.

Nasim:

No, it only connectivity on the station allows it to basically all rudimentary commands are already built in hardware, but they are like activated via like those commands by server via cellular bridge. The bridge is, it's like a station is connected. The brain is in the cloud and to get to the brain, like the advanced brain and the primitive brain is on the station, the primitive firmware. And so basically station is just is is in connection mode and just ask anything anything anything Yes release or and also like we need to release the chargers that are the most charged we can't give you that charger So we get the status like we monitor the station we monitor each charger We monitor like In order to identify that you returned, you as a user have ID, the charger has ID. So we read the ID when you return, we read the ID, okay, ID is linked to you and we close your session. So basically, for example, return, you just return it it's a, it's magnet. You just like just BAMPF, it's returned and we read the ID and in a few seconds you receive text messages that like, thank you for using. Your session is closed. You don't even need to do anything. It's just, that's it. And this magic, why it's like we can do it so quick is because of cellular connectivity.

Ryan:

What I'm hearing is that I could check out if I were in a university campus where there are several different stations. Could I check out a unit from 1 device in the student union and then return it in the library?

Nasim:

That's exactly how it works. Yep.

Ryan:

Talk to me about the lessons that you've learned on this project that could help other connected product innovators or engineers. How did the role of wifi get in the way of your selling and perhaps distributing this product out to the masses?

Nasim:

It's, it was very iterative process and we actually started with Bluetooth like I I've been through all of them, all of the standards. So we started with Bluetooth. So the idea was that like phone will connect actual app, mobile app will connect via Bluetooth to your charger and will activate it. It was dead in the water immediately. And then we did Wi Fi and we're like, Ooh, server, everything is easy. But then we realized that it's impossible to get wifi from the locations as bigger as the location, as hard as to get the wifi. Matter of fact, we actually never managed to get wifi credentials from universities. Like we, we've been installed, like for example, in Cal State Long Beach, we've been like for a year, first year and it department never gave us. Wi Fi and they never gave us access to Wi Fi. They gave us requirements that would require us to completely change our firmware. And it was like already nightmare to, to finalize the firmware because Wi Fi is not like the easiest thing when you are a developer. And and so. wi Fi become like basically a major bottleneck for onboarding. It worked, it was doing the, like technically what we needed to do, but we couldn't onboard customers as quick and we couldn't onboard some customers at all. Because some people once we said Wi Fi, they're like, forget it.

Ryan:

hearing that the larger the customer is, which is the larger the sales opportunity, which is what every business wants, the better the opportunity, the harder it is to get any sort of access to the network credentials. So you could sell the small businesses all day long who they don't have an I t team. There's no security officer. There's no policies necessarily that they're having strict adherence to.

Nasim:

less money involved and like risk, like as bigger you are like risk everywhere is a risk, but just as bigger you are the risk is bigger. So if I'm an IT manager, if I'm them, I would be like phone chargers. Where is in, where is it in the priority list? It's very low. No. I'm not going to take this risk. I don't want to lose my job. I know that like probability is zero, zero point, like 0. 1%, but I just don't want to do it. So if you, do you see what I mean? It's it's basically like the risk is always there. And as as bigger they are and as less critical is your solution. For example, if you're developers and they make something new and you need to make the onboarding and adoption, like really as simple as possible, then it's like concern that they will lose their job is you need to avoid that concern because the wifi creates that concern. They see it as I'm inviting a problem.

Ryan:

mean, there's a reason why I've heard it as the office of a CI No, how far down the development process did you get with your wifi design before you realized you had to pivot.

Nasim:

we almost got to the mass production. So we almost got to the mass production. And the good news for us we had USB plug on the back of a station for those people who has dead phone and your phone is dead. You can't use the app. So what you do you can. Get the charger. So we thought, okay, we'll do USB. And then we use this USB to plug in the hotspot with SIM card to connect the wifi on the station to this hotspot. So that's how we were that's how we installed our station in those universities with hotspot. And it's a perfect example of how you do like step by step MVP, because that's like minimal viable product because we made wifi. And then we should we do cellular? Yes, we already, we are, we installed it for a year and we actually using cellular, it's just separated. We just use like hotspot, but it is a cellular connectivity. It's, so where I'm going with this is we didn't just we switched, let's do cellular. We were already doing it. We were doing it just in weird way. Let me put it this way, prototype way, but like then it was clear that Hey, Yeah. I remember can we just disassemble the hotspot and put it inside? And then yes, maybe we just need to embed it on our motherboard. I, I will. I knew how hard it will be from a certification point of view most mostly because we already searched FCC and frequencies and all this stuff. I just I was trying to find any excuse not to do it but in the end It's just like we got overwhelming amount of like kind of data that it had to be done and we did it

Ryan:

data is this customer feedback and sales data.

Nasim:

Yeah, it's just like You ask Wi Fi and I mean who would have thought right but Wi Fi was a deal killer and I mean It was shocking, to be honest, and we never anticipated it. And we would I'm, we've got lucky that we had USB behind the station so we could hook the hotspot. Otherwise we wouldn't be able to do any pilots. Another tip you might want to have a USB port on your, if you're, if your device allows that, so you can hook hotspot if you do wifi, like you just it wouldn't hurt to have a U S B so you can plug hotspot. So for, if they don't allow you to have wifi, you put SOCOM SIM cards inside the hotspot, use them similar way, and then for your next version, you can embed it inside. So we got lucky. We didn't prepare this, but we, but like you, you see what I mean?

Ryan:

oh, I know exactly what you mean. It's, this is actually one of the reasons why Soracom ended up building their own, Onyx USB modem. It's a an LTE Radio and it's all pre certified, it's all enclosed and it's for devices where they're in the prototyping phase and they don't want to have to embed the radio, worry about all the certifications. So it's already got. All of the PTCRB, it's got all of the CE the UK, like it's covered in all of the global bands. And so it just, people can just plug it in. And with the Soracom SIM, it also like immediately works with everything. So they have global connectivity anywhere. And it's, and again it's a shortcut to

Nasim:

is, it's,

Ryan:

Proof of feasibility.

Nasim:

yeah it's you almost have to go this way. You basically like the first thing is to have wifi because wifi is easier to develop and it's cheaper. It's like the wifi module is like 2 to 3 dollars and second, you prove your product like, and then you have this separate hotspot and then Like second step you anyway, you get some pre certified module as well. That's another thing You never ever in my opinion as a developer want to develop your own circuitry that you need to search You will most likely die on certification stage not even because I mean when we were certifying our product the horror stories that they were hearing you have to be like Apple Samsung level to just like boldly, go and make your own circuit and like certified because it's like tens of and

Ryan:

you're forgetting about money. It's like 80, 000 is the starting point just

Nasim:

if you, if if it didn't work out, you need to pay more. It's not that like you pay 80, 000 and you have it. That's where I'm saying. It's that's where pain comes at. Oh God, we didn't pass and we paid 80, 000. We need

Ryan:

And then you've got the carrier certification too. So if you're going to get your own radio made or your own cellular modem, and you're going to be embedding it and all of that fun stuff. If you're not using pre certified. Now you get to go to the carrier that you're using and you have to go through their certification process, which is more tens of thousands of dollars and a more waiting period. And

Nasim:

and let's say you did it, and let's say you did it. Then you are from scratch need to make firmware from like absolute like ground up. And it's another nightmare. So we choose the Simcom modules. It's a a Chinese company. I think they're based in Shanghai. They're like. Incredible, like they were the most affordable. We shopped around. We like, like how it works. You just if anyone is interested, you basically contact them and say, we need sales. We're developing this and we need seller model. There are like few companies that do this, like maybe five of them, 10 of them, they will immediately be bombarding you is they will send you the modules. They'll do everything to get you on board. And we just ended up with them because Price. They were certified and there were tons of development already. Like basically we just needed Get the code and optimize it for our solution without reinventing the wheel. We didn't need to reinvent the wheel with the module itself. We didn't need to reinvent the wheel with the software. And it was certified. And so basically we certified as application FCC. We were FCC application that were carrying this module that was already certified. And they just do simple tests. It's like It's 1, 000 or 2, 000 and it's easy. That one was easy, but you can't mix Wi Fi and cellular module on one board. If you do that, you create, they intermingle with each other, even though they, both of them are pre certified, both modules, Wi Fi and cellular, they start intermingling with each other. That's the nightmare that we learned because we wanted to do both. We did wi fi. We're like, hey, let's put them together. We can use one or another and they're like No, you can't do this because they then the ways interfere with radio interferes with each other and then they need to test how they interfere and what this I mean You understand where i'm

Ryan:

Oh, absolutely.

Nasim:

you created third Case basically and they need to and this third case is like as complicated as making your own circuit So yeah, it's, I know it sounds crazy, but that's why I didn't want to do

Ryan:

I, but I could see the allure of starting with wifi, though. If you compare the cost per module, it's a BOM cost of what could be like up to 50 bucks just. By having the whole embedded cellular experience right from the get go.

Nasim:

50 bucks. And like around 24 to 30 bucks reoccurring annual cost as well. So basically let's say your device works, let's say lifetime of your device is five year, let's go and you will pay 150 more for your BOM in five years and plus 50 bucks for module. 200 bucks.

Ryan:

I think this is the interesting part where, when you're just looking at the spreadsheets and BOM costs, how often, like smart products or connected products, aren't thinking about the opportunity cost lost by, by blocking yourself out of larger opportunities, right? You're in sports stadiums. Now with the big VIP lounges, you're in university campuses.

Nasim:

Yup

Ryan:

These are all large opportunities versus what could have been a single restaurant.

Nasim:

Oh, yeah. 100%. No, don't get me wrong. It's 100% worth it. Plus, imagine hiring someone manually monitoring all those stations. You save so much money by having connectivity and these bots that you created, software bots that like, just, Hey, how are you? Are you okay? Hey, how are you? Are you okay? So it's just, those are employees and those employees talk with your like physical employees, machines via connectivity. So it's like you hired someone and it's part of the salary, but it's like you pay for their like. Connection.

Ryan:

Most quick serve restaurants. So your Taco Bells and McDonald's, all of these even smaller restaurants with a point of sale stations. Like they use cellular point of sale devices in most cases, either as Wi Fi to start or cellular fallback, but because cellular is typically a secure means of transacting the PCI DSS compliance for the payment card industry's data security standards. If you're moving money or information could be for

Nasim:

PCI, you said PC I I am like because PCI was another issue with

Ryan:

It's a trigger word, isn't it? Right?

Nasim:

like PCI

Ryan:

I three and a half years and 180, 000 and probably 150 plus pages of documentation that are requirements like 80%. Actually, I'm going to say it's probably 90% documentation and 10% actual

Nasim:

yeah.

Ryan:

And execution.

Nasim:

let PayPal and Thread do this for us. I'm like, we just get there. We just, we like I'm like, we lose the data, we lose the control, but I don't wanna deal with it.

Ryan:

having built almost two dozen connected products myself and getting to compare and contrast connected, wired, wireless and cellular is the more I learn about cellular from my peers and solutions architects at Soracom. It makes my mind kind of explode because most connections are from the device to the network, to the public internet. And it's up to you to encrypt all of the traffic. Whereas cellular is a very controlled network. It's not the standard TCP IP, like the internet as we know it, but it is its own sub network. And the cloud engineers at Soracom making a a cloud native cellular network rather than it going from device. To tower to the data center, let's say it's AT& T or Verizon or whomever, they then provide an open port to the internet and you're going to be having all of the IP sec and you have to control everything and what the founders at Soracom did was they moved. The entire data packet switching side that usually lives at the carrier and virtualized it into the cloud. And so they have direct connections with all the different carriers. So like in the us at and t, Verizon and T-Mobile, no matter which tower your device is talking to,'cause it can talk to any of them. It's then having all of the data transfer from the data center to a private virtual private cloud in SOCOMs AWS instance in one of their local breakouts. So if you're in North America, you're in the North America breakout. And so the data is already in the cloud and it never touched public Internet. And so if you're using, let's say you're using a Chinese made cellular module. There are some industries where they'd say, sorry, we can't do that security starts at supply chain. But what we're able to do is because we're maintaining the entire conduit of traffic. We can do, we've done packet inspection and there's something they call a private garden, which isolates all of the traffic and shows so it can prove you can prove devices aren't phoning home that they can't contact anything else. You can

Nasim:

yeah.

Ryan:

It's just our application server and AWS lambda. Cause we're doing some logic functions. And so it, it can prove by, by, by using that switchboard operator in the cloud you're not doing anything malicious or you're using vendors that they only can do what you want them to do.

Nasim:

Yeah. And talking about like that, I totally understand that some applications they will, especially now it's like more and more like you say, Chinese module or Oh, and I get it. But For applications like and I honestly, if I'm a, if I'm talking to the listeners, if you're a developer, do not worry about it, use what is the easiest. Your job is to survive. You shouldn't be worried about geopolitics. And it's and they as Ryan just said, they have a solution to prove that That we control the data they, we can, we have a root control, we can confirm they not reporting to China. So and it's but what I'm, where I'm going with this, I did some mistakes like this where I was like overthinking certain things. My job, my main job was, is to survive,

Ryan:

right. cross that bridge when you come to it, you're not building military applications. You know, if, If someday, Fort Bragg and all of the military bases say we want electron to go, you go, guess what, we will happily source a module

Nasim:

We will replace the motherboard. Yeah, we will replace the motherboard. Okay. MOQ 1000,

Ryan:

Yeah. Nail

Nasim:

do whatever.

Ryan:

scale it.

Nasim:

Yeah, give us place order, like minimum 1000, we will do whatever you want.

Ryan:

So this has been really helpful. So if this is, what to expect when you're connecting your first cellular enabled device The things that you've found is that you've eliminated friction, not only on the buying process, but also during setup, because you control the connection from day one, you're not sending someone into the field to go and install you can have someone physically installing the device, but they'd also don't have to be a network engineer and then, find out how to talk to the local network or talk to the wifi to insert credentials to meet whatever the version of Cisco's, a campus management security software, right?

Nasim:

It's an if you if this is your like, Oh, operations, like if this is your own boarding process, you failed already, it's like your operation process should be like ideal operation processes. I just plug it

Ryan:

Plug it in, mount it on the wall, plug in some power

Nasim:

and it works.

Ryan:

yep. And then your tech support engineer says, and 20 seconds later, I see a pulse.

Nasim:

Yeah. I see. Yeah. And just make sure that like you have some indicator that tells them that like it's online. That's it. That's, I would like whoever you are, whatever you do, just go through this. Like ideal case is they just plug it in and it works. And then from there you, because some people, we included we just didn't think this way. We were like, what is available, what is the cheapest solution for connection and but like we needed to prove our case and it's, as we said, it's good to start with wifi, but the ideal case, plug and play.

Ryan:

Any final things that you would, if you were to be able to write another chapter, what would your sneak peek be for? Other things people should be thinking about beyond just the connectivity if they're building a smart product. If it's not Wi Fi versus cellular, is there any other T's that you could give?

Nasim:

Yeah avoids avoid batteries because it's a disaster with shipping it's I mean if you can avoid batteries lithium batteries, it's absolute disaster with shipping Just be ready whatever battery you have inside. It's disaster. It's like shipping you will need to certify your package You will I mean we do power banks. Our product is literally in the same category as like bombs So we need to do special certification for our product So and even if you are like Vacuum with a battery inside. You need special box. I'm sorry, you need sticker and blah, blah, blah. That's just one thing that the lithium batteries inside. Welcome to New World as more important is battery for your application as in bigger pro challenge, not problem, challenge you have on hand and Yeah, the biggest headache for certification is for us. We're literally doing batteries and connectivity has connectivity. And I would say I would do this, I would do. One prototype then I would do ten that will be used then I would do hundred and then I would do thousand Whatever you do because on each of these steps you will learn something new that you had No idea. Absolutely. It's impossible to predict. So I Would say it's better than sitting and you know thinking what can go wrong just make 10 of whatever you make or five and you quickly realize what's going what will go wrong. So my my one lesson that like I learned is like. just gradually, as soon as possible, launch your product. And before you do thousands of them, make sure that you, because like when you do thousands, you will have different challenges, mass production challenges. And so you want to make sure that development challenges were resolved before you face mass production challenges and to resolve the development challenges, launch one, 10, a hundred in real world, not not with friends.

Ryan:

So last thing, when we spoke before agreeing to this interview, you showed, you shared a story about, we can protect the names of the innocent, but a very large potential client. And they, you'd sent them a prototype unit and it caused a bit of drama. If you're willing to

Nasim:

Oh yeah we it's like a large retail chain and they, because we have hotspot and hotspot emits. Like they made connectivity and they hooked it in and they plugged it in and supernova start working and Like their security emailing us Your station is emitting connectivity. It's basically like for like It's crazy. It's like for them. It's like we have like in our like secure building some weird connectivity out of nowhere and that's how wi fi connection is like asking hey connect to me, hotspot and you connect your computer and Data is gone. So

Ryan:

so this was one of the Wi Fi units that was trying to connect to a hotspot.

Nasim:

No, it's a hotspot that was with the unit because the unit was connected to the hotspot. So because we want it to be plug and play, if I told them, Hey, here's a device and here is the instruction to add SSID and password, they would never accept the demo. And we didn't know, but hotspot was a big problem too, because hotspot was an alien connectivity device that was, devices in the office could have, could, it's could connect and it From security point of view. It's a big problem and we got angry email that like what's going on here and we're like, oh, sorry shut down the hot spot and that's a hot spot and so Yeah, it's that serious with wi fi. Wi fi is not like and I get it. I get it after Understanding why they do what they do. I understand seller is the way

Ryan:

cool. Thank you so much, Nassim, for your time. This has been really instructional and I thank you for sharing what you've learned personally in putting a product out into this world. And for those that are looking to connect what you can expect is there's going to be more issues that you weren't prepared for. That you couldn't possibly even anticipated and one of those, not just Wi Fi versus cellular, but if you're using a lithium ion battery, just be ready to be filling a lot of extra paperwork and shipping things in differently. So until next time, thank you so much. What is Soracom to you?

Nasim:

Soracom is basically safe partner that like does this extremely important function. My software employees talk with our hardware employees, machines with like bots software, and they wouldn't be able to talk without Soracom and Soracom never fails. Soracom means a lot and we, we're glad that we found you. And we are really grateful that like you take care of all this and we don't need to think about it. As you mentioned, the security part, like dealing with like, I had a call with AT& T We wanted to get directly from them. SIMs, it wasn't fun. So I'm so glad that you guys taking all this pain and we just deal with you and everything is resolved and everything works fine. I we don't even think about that we use SIM cards only when we pay, which is great. And we don't have any problems.

Ryan:

When you were doing your due diligence was there anything that stood out

Nasim:

From all the vendors with whom we worked, you were the humblest. You were humble Twilio, it's like it's like it has its own like radioactivity of I don't know it's just it's it felt like we are selling to them, not they are selling to us. It was weird. You know what I mean? It was like, guys, I'm buying from you. It's not that like you buying from like, it's, it was like with you guys were super humble. We work with other, they were not as quick. You were like bam, super, like everything was simple, everything was clear and everything worked. And whenever we needed some, because we are weird, we're a startup, things change on the go and you always like, no problem, whatever we ask, no problem. And and then it never failed, literally never failed. And price. Price was on top of all of this on top of like personal, like basically our own manager and all of this one might think that like you would cost more. So Twilio is three time cost. I think they killed the SIM card business. I I'm not surprised. We use them as SMS. That's why we know they told us via email that like they no longer do SIM cards. We started with them and it's just like comparing you and them, for example, I just work with them. It was, those are, those were the things extremely well communication with the customer, flexibility that startups need and price. And obviously the reliability is top notch,

Ryan:

I love your energy and your willingness to share your story

Ryan C:

This has been another episode of what to expect when you're connecting. Until next time.