HomeFeatures/AnalysisExclusive interview: Corrie Vermeulen

Exclusive interview: Corrie Vermeulen

A returning industry association partner of African Utility Week. The AUTC is also hosting a conference that is co-located to AUW in May.

1) Welcome back to African Utility Week as a co-located event and as an association partner. Please can we start with some background on the AUTC and the goals of the organization?
The Utility Telecoms Council was founded in the United States 69 year ago by utilities focusing on a core set of common values, which have proven to be applicable to utilities around the world, and has led to utilities establishing UTC’s international regions in America Latina, Canada, Europe and recently Africa.

a) Fundamental transition from isolated Telecoms and IT strategies to an environment of converged IT/Telecoms
b) Members contribute essential Technical Expertise on core business, process and technology challenges
c) Members raise the role of telecommunications and ICT to corporate, industry, and government leaders
d) Members are trusted resources, and therefore enhance the ability to influence policy and regulation, technology innovation, and organizational best practices.

Vision: AUTC is the trusted advisor to utilities and other critical infrastructure providers in Africa. The Council serves as the source and resource for our members who deploy technologies and solutions that deliver secure, reliable and affordable mission critical

2) The AUTC has a much bigger role at AUW this year, including a co-located conference, and contributions to the metering, water and T&D conference tracks. Can you give us more information what delegates can expect in May?
This year the AUTC with the support of UTC in the USA will have an expanded involvement at AUW; this is possible as a result of the AUTC/AUW partnership agreement that was concluded in January 2017.  It is important that utilities understand that their electrical grids are only as reliable and resilient as the communications network that supports the operations. With the implementation of smart technologies, this is becoming even more important. The incorporation of utility telecoms and related ICT at African Utility Week is now more appropriate than ever before.

Delegates can expect expert presentations on most of the critical issues that utilities grapple with today. These are IT/OT Convergence, Cyber Security, Packet Networks for Utilities, Communications Networks for Smart Metering and much more. AUTC will share, in the form of a case study, what happened in the Ukraine when cyber attackers broke into the communications systems of their major utility….watch our AUTC Conference programme for details.

3) It is the first time utility, telecoms and ICT are together at a utility event – why is this unique and why is this important?
Traditionally communications in utilities consisted of copper wired networks and radio networks, these networks evolved and with the arrival of the internet these become Internet Protocol Networks (IP) and the IT fraternity during this time also evolved into IP networks, the result is that there is fundamentally very little difference between IT and OT networks. The major difference is in terms of performance for certain applications.

4) Do you think that the merger of utilities, ICT and telecoms is inevitable? What is your vision?
There is a major case to be made for these networks to be converged with multiple benefits that can be extracted, however, certain of the performance criteria for Operational Technology (OT) are very stringent and many technical experts advise strongly against the convergence of OT and IT.  In the long term this convergence will be unavoidable and, in the long run, the benefits will in the outweigh the technical arguments for which solutions will have to be found in order to make it happen to bring about very needed cost optimizations.

5) What are the main challenges in the utility sector on the continent in your view?
My view is that funding is a major obstacle and that is why there are so many African countries where a very small percentage of the population has access to reliable electricity. As an example, the economy of Nigeria is basically the same size as that of South Africa but their installed capacity is only about 10% that of South Africa; plus Nigeria has three times the population of South Africa.  This means that in SA, we have about 20 000 MW installed capacity per 50 million people whereas in Nigeria it is estimated to be 3 000 MW for 50 million people.

6) What will be AUTC’s main message at African Utility Week?
Utilities need to work together in the utility telecommunications and related ICT space and support each other to overcome the issues of common interest. Furthermore, utility executives need to be very aware of the importance of utility telecommunications networks and the consequences if these networks fail –  the Ukraine cyber-attack is a real world example of what can happen.

7) How important is African Utility Week for the utility sector?
Extremely important, it is an event where utilities can learn from vendors and each other, the wheel does not need to be re-invented and every utility has a good story to tell that every other utility can learn from.