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Utility telecoms tend to take a lead from supervisory apparatus deployed in power stations and substations, whilst the commercial ICT world moves swiftly to meet the ever-growing demands of the consumer. This dynamic is leaving utilities at the mercy of smart technology advancements.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 3, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine online or subscribe to receive a print copy.

Traditionally, most power and freight utilities, and recently water utilities, have operated their own telecommunications departments, in the form of utility telecoms, in-house. These departments operate networks that offer mission critical telecom services to support the power grid. In terms of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), the utility telecoms by design/nature feature towards the end of the technology adoption life cycle, as laggards (see graph below).

Technology adoption life cycle

Although most utilities have R&D departments, their ICT sections tend to take a back burner in terms of priorities and are scarcely resourced. These limited resources put their focus on testing technologies that have been designed mainly for commercial operations, to evaluate their suitability in carrying mission critical services.

Seemingly reinventing the wheel, the R&D departments are in fact aspiring to have a next-to zero chance of technology failure. The criticality of the services offered by the utility telecoms cannot be overstated due to the magnitude of the disaster, should a technology failure lead to a blackout in densely populated areas or main cities.

This could ultimately affect critical public services such as transport (buses and trains), clinics and hospitals. Therefore, by shouldering this responsibility, operational certainty of the chosen technology is of utmost importance for the utilities.

Accurate information

To keep pace with smart technology developments, the utility telecoms must schedule their change of technology within the business to remain relevant to the power, freight or water utilities they represent. The latest demands from the automation section is to ensure that utilities have real-time and accurate information from meters to enable them to guide resources to affected areas, whether it is water leakages, loss of communications, or energy losses.

Coverage is, however, one of the challenges that compel utilities to explore outsourcing the meter network connection. Due to the stringent business case that each substation needs to satisfy, rolling out infrastructure to a small distribution substation is usually not cost-effective. The utilities would therefore outsource these services to mobile operators, using mobile connectivity that enables Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications.

The security of this form of communication is also reliable ensuring that the information and meter performance is not compromised. The availability of these two types of networks to serve the needs of the utility bodes well for the continuity of the services but somehow delays any major infrastructure replacement programmes by the utilities.

Lifecycle of electronic equipment

The time it takes for the utility telecoms to replace the network ends up negatively affecting the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) from a technology advancement perspective. OEMs have clearly defined roadmaps that spell out the lifecycle of all electronic equipment, and these form part of their product offering. Thus, the inability of the utility telecoms to transition with the OEMs leaves them having to engineer software patches onto the Network Management Systems’ software.

On the hardware side, the utility telecoms find themselves having to request extension of certain products to keep their network going. There are situations where the utility telecoms must scramble around for spares, and quite often, refurbished spares. This is, of course, undesirable.

In short, the utility telecoms cannot afford to follow the roadmap of every OEM; however, the rate of transition from one technology standard to the next must be quicker.

Utilities are renowned for clinging on to certain technologies/ platforms – a cancer exacerbated by the unavailability of funds to replace the communications network.

Adopting new standards and benefits thereof It is important to note that it is non-compulsory to regularly adopt new standards; unless the old standards interfere with the new standards. However, the organisations entrusted with setting up the standards have been tasked with the responsibility to ensure compatibility of the new equipment with the older standards. International standards play an important role in global trading. For electricity metering, they are developed by IEC Technical Committee 13: Equipment for electrical energy measurement, tariff and load control.

They are used by manufacturers, utilities, metering service providers, regulators and legal metrology bodies [1].

Regionally, these standards may differ, such as where the US-based ANSI is used. Furthermore, some mechanical aspects standards, such as the size and connection arrangements, can be set and differ from country to country or national standards. Regardless of which standard is used, it is the standards organisations that need to take into cognisance the availability of capex for the utility telecoms to transition from one standard to the next.

Some standards tend to be mandatory, perhaps revolutionary from a technological perspective. These require that the entire network be migrated, if not replaced, from the remote units to the front-end processors and the desk consoles. Such migration or replacement programmes could vary in complexity depending on the size of the network and consumer population.

Replacement programmes are inclined to encompass future needs, thus incorporating network expansion (provisioning), as part of the business case. One cannot exclude the costs associated with staff training or multiskilling since programmes like this usually take more than a couple of years. The training needs to remain constant even if the implementation of the programme is outsourced to the OEM-accredited teams.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 3, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine online or subscribe to receive a print copy.

In conclusion, the primary reason for standards is to ensure that hardware and software produced by different vendors can work together. Without networking standards, it would be difficult – if not impossible – to develop networks that easily share information. Standards also mean that customers are not locked into one vendor. They can buy hardware and software from any vendor whose equipment meets the standard, thus ensuring compatibility. In this way, standards help to promote more competition and hold down prices [2]. ESI

1 IEC standards for electricity metering. Metering International, published 2005.
2 New Standards (Data Communications and Networks). What-When-How in-depth tutorial.

Mlungisi MkhwanaziAbout the author
Mlungisi Mkhwanazi is the executive director of the Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC) and a telecommunications expert with more than 21 years of experience in the utility telecom industry.