Alan Nunn, communications subject matter Expert at CGI UK Energy networks, Generation, Innovation, Technology, Water, Opinion

5G is a hot topic in telecoms, but what can it do for utilities that existing technology cannot? And how can utilities exploit the opportunity that 5G brings? Alan Nunn explains.

We all take connectivity for granted, whether it’s broadband at home, on the move, or the ultra-reliable fixed telephone network (PSTN) and private wires that silently keep the country running.

But it’s all changing. The PSTN and legacy private circuits are due to be decommissioned during the next three to five years, and some mobile operators are switching off 3G networks as 4G has become ubiquitous.

5G is being deployed rapidly and is not just about speed, although that’s the headline for consumers. The real impacts of 5G, when fully rolled out, are resilience, ultra-low latency, and the ability to fully connect low-cost sensors. With such significant changes, and the need to look ahead in the investment cycle, it is time to start planning.

5G networking, and current mobile technology such as narrowband internet of things, provide a transformational opportunity for the industry. Utility operators can now pull sensor data back from deeper in the network, without having to deploy expensive dedicated communications links.

Likewise, control can be provided further out – ultimately to homes and businesses – as smart devices, appliances and electric vehicles are deployed. Water companies can sense flow deeper in the network, monitor river flows and reservoir levels and pull all this data together to give a real-time picture of the network and wider environment, enabling them to predict events and protect against damage.

Getting connected is only the start. To benefit from these changes, it will be necessary to transform business processes and enhance the operational technology systems that look after this new network of sensors and manage the data from them. These new sensors will need to be managed and integrated into communications services.

Fortunately, the Telemanagement Forum has been thinking about how to do this, and has created a series of application programming interfaces to enable such ecosystems to work, enabling scale to be managed efficiently.

The more significant impact is likely to be in a utility’s processes, as well as the underlying data. Why? Because you will be able to move from a reactive approach, responding when a fault occurs – or worse, when customers tell you a fault has occurred – to a more proactive approach. Proactive maintenance uses new data sources to enable a utility to respond to changing operational conditions by monitoring trends.

For example, temperatures of transformers can indicate increasing loads or an internal fault, well before customers are affected. Changes in water flow patterns can indicate leaks before they become widespread and cause further damage.

To utilise this, the sources of data need to be integrated into the operational technology, which will enable significant improvements in business efficiency and responsiveness. A utility will be able to schedule maintenance more efficiently, rather than responding to the latest incidents reported. Improved control and management will lead to a more profitable business, as well as improving customer experience and reducing network downtime.

The telecoms companies are upgrading their business support systems as they roll out 5G, because today’s systems are not able to deal with the product complexity and flexibility that 5G will bring. While today you can order a private circuit with a fixed bandwidth, having the ability to directly control that bandwidth up and down is rare, unless you buy a premium service. Soon, you will be able to select the type of connectivity you want from your mobile connection. Do you need guaranteed bandwidth for video site surveillance? Ultra-low latency and guaranteed resilience for protection of critical assets under fault conditions? Connect a large number of sensors that may send only a small amount of data every hour?

All of these broad product groups will become available in 5G over the next couple of years, and it is time to start thinking about how you can make the most of them.

At CGI we appreciate that planning for new investment takes time, but now is the moment to develop roadmaps and business cases so you can fully exploit the forthcoming innovations in telecoms. Are you ready for the challenge?

Alan Nunn, consulting director, telecoms, CGI

What to read next