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Sharing Telecom Industry Lessons With Utility Operators

Aug. 23, 2022
Electric utility operators that respond to the new market competition, government mandates, and changing customer needs will outpace the competition, setting themselves up for success in the years to come.

Electricity demand and consumption patterns have evolved tremendously over the last few years, influenced by many societal, technology, and business changes. Electric vehicles are rising in popularity due to increasing climate consciousness and high gas prices, and the pandemic has changed working patterns, with flexible remote and hybrid working becoming the ‘new normal’.

To add to this, operators have the extra challenge of managing a rapidly evolving grid due to the increasing demand for renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, as well as the increasing popularity of electric vehicles as decarbonization becomes a bigger societal priority. This has left electric utilities with the difficult task of predicting ever-changing usage patterns to meet ever-changing consumer and business demands.

To get ahead of these new demands, current network infrastructure is now being assessed to check if the technology and processes in place are still effective. But while operators understand what needs to be done, the scope and complexity of changes are unprecedented and utilities are under pressure to respond quickly.

The evolving demand and consumption patterns have created a sense of urgency within the electric utilities sector and for operators to ensure reliable and sustainable energy delivery and protect their business models, there is an imperative for rapid change.

This is easier said than done. Many utilities are finding that responding to changing demands is taking longer than expected due to the significant upheaval of legacy systems. Valuable lessons can be learned from different sections, other industries have had to respond to evolving demand on a similar level. While having its own challenges and drivers, the telecom industry has gone through a huge evolution to upgrade and digitally transform their networks and systems. For example, telecom operators have changed from cable and copper to fiber and 5G, reinventing their brands, keeping up with new demands, and competing in a cutthroat market.

So, what lessons can the telecom industry share with electric utility operators?

Perhaps the biggest factor for successful telecom operators is how they embrace change in a positive way. Operating in a highly competitive market means that if telecom organizations don’t review their technology and respond to change, then they will be overtaken by competitors. The market has ingrained a culture of constant innovation, which has allowed them to move quickly and flexibly throughout the transformation process.

Adopting a culture of constant innovation to accelerate digitization can help electric utilities respond to the evolving usage patterns and demands with network modernization strategies. Below are some of the main lessons from the telecom industry to achieve this culture and proactively plan for new technology and changing customer demand.

Modeling scenarios will help operators prepare for every eventuality

Over the years, telecom operators have moved from copper to coaxial and from coaxial to fiber and 5G. These changing technologies require new network architectures that demand streamlined operational strategies.

Conceptually, the changes that have taken place in the telecom industry are similar to that which is currently taking place in the utility industry. Rising popularity of electric vehicles and the electricity demand that is required to support charging, plus an increased focus on reaching net zero targets and many other factors has created an ever-changing energy production and consumption cycle.

To tackle changing network requirements, telecom operators began modeling different scenarios that allowed them to manage parallel transformations. They did so by creating accurate network digital twins with applications that spanned the network lifecycle. This approach has helped speed up network planning and design, while also responding to changing service level requirements.

Utility operators can adopt a very similar approach. By integrating digital twins into their transformation strategy, operators can accurately model their network, creating an agile technology framework that can efficiently respond to challenges.

Innovative telecom operators have taken the first steps in this process by abandoning ineffective centralized legacy GIS orthodoxy. They are instead relying on modern decentralized and mobile technologies that are available to all stakeholders and provide the agility to adapt to rapidly changing needs. Electric utilities can follow in the footsteps of telecom operators by constantly assessing the technology to ensure it meets evolving business needs. If not, then the strategy can be rapidly adapted to meet targets and remain competitive.

While the electric utility market is not the same as the world of telecoms, they can still benefit from the culture of innovation that leading telecom operators have created. Competition is increasing in the electric utility market, with large tech organizations creating their own electric networks to capitalize on the increasing demand for electricity as well as the ever-increasing addition of residential solar and storage. If electric utilities operators don’t respond to this new competition, then they run the risk of losing customers and market share to new, innovative players.

Decisions need to be made from a single source of truth

While the list of demands for utility operators is already long enough, another challenge is being added to their list. Natural disasters and extreme weather events are on the rise, and this risk is only set to increase. The UN’s 2022 Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction stated that “the number of disasters per year globally may increase from 400 in 2015 to 560 per year by 2030.” It is essential for operators to respond to this, by creating real-time network situational awareness - something that can only happen effectively when critical data sources are viewed through a shared network view that creates a single source of truth.

Using data from multiple disconnected applications to make important decisions will deliver suboptimal results. Quite often, different applications provide contradictory information, which in turn compromises disaster assessment and response initiatives. To safely and efficiently respond to disasters, operators need a reliable, accurate view of their network.

This is something that telecom operators have recognized for some time. “Swivel chair management” of a variety of diverse applications only serves to hinder business efficiency. To counter this, leading telecom operators have moved to integrate all critical data sources and internal systems into a single source of truth that supports the entire network lifecycle. This provides operators with real-time situational awareness that improves response times, as well as proactive planning and operational decision-making.

One such company within the electric utility industry that has effectively brought all data sources into a single source of truth to effectively respond to disasters is Chubu Electric Power Grid in Japan. Chubu has created a shared disaster assessment dashboard that draws on all data sources. Doing so has given Chubu’s teams in the office and field access to an accurate network view, which enables them to assess disasters efficiently and pragmatically create a response plan. Chubu’s teams can work together to respond to the disaster, with dispatch teams informing field teams where they need to be and providing them with live traffic data and hazard maps to help them plan their routes while capturing the rapidly evolving situation on the ground.

Without an accurate integration of all data, operators wouldn’t be able to efficiently and effectively respond to disasters, which in turn would risk costly mistakes during emergency incidents.

Ongoing technological innovation will create consistent ROI

On a day-to-day basis, utility operators rely on a massive amount of IT infrastructure to serve customers. While this infrastructure addresses particular challenges, it often creates new disconnected sources of information that can’t be shared and leveraged easily.

Following the same path as the telecom industry, utility operators can develop a culture of constant innovation, continually assessing their strategic technology, while also working to integrate all their different data silos into a single shared network view.

This strategy not only ensures the best ROI for operators, but also delivers the innovative technology needed to meet technical, business, and customer service targets.

Develop a company culture of constant innovation

Ultimately, the biggest difference between the telecom and electric utility industries has been the markets in which they operate. The telecom market is driven by competitive pressures, which has forced operators to develop a culture of constant innovation to stay ahead of race. Due to evolving demand and usage patterns creating a gap in the market, these conditions are now making their way into the electric utilities space. To keep up, utility operators can leverage the experience of the telecom industry by adopting a culture of constant innovation.

The electric utility operators that respond to the new market competition, government mandates and changing customer needs by adopting a culture of constant innovation will outpace the competition, setting themselves up for success in the years to come. 

Adrian McNulty is the vie-president of utility solutions at IQGeo.

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