Barriers = Challenges = Success

 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

This week, I participated on a panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) here in D.C., where the focus was on the “Industrial Internet of Things.”  The panel was moderated by the BPC’s Jake Varn and included Scott Bogren, Executive Director of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) and Adria Finch, Director of Innovation with the City of Syracuse, NY.

For those of you who have read my blog before, you’ve likely realized that I’m concerned about how language is often misused or overused to the point that complicated subjects that need to be understood actually become less so.  Such is the case with the term “Internet of Things” (IoT for short).  In order to help clarify what that means, I found this definition on Wikipedia (which I think is a good one, but of course there are others):

The Internet of things (IoT) is the network of physical devices, vehicles, home appliances and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enables these objects to connect and exchange data. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to inter-operate within the existing Internet infrastructure.

In terms of the more specific, industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the primary issue is how critical infrastructure providers like UTC’s electric, gas and water utility members use these devices within their own secure “intranets” that are supported by underlying private telecom networks to enable more visibility, efficiency, reliability and safety.  Note that private networks are managed by the utility itself and closely monitored for security, reliability and safety reasons. The secondary issue is how devices used at the “edge” of the grid (or the pipelines or water lines) by our members’ customers are then integrated – or not – into our private networks.  The first issue is well understood by UTC’s members because they have been using smart devices like SCADA systems, sensors and meters on their private networks for years.  Many of them have even been gathering the data from those devices to analyze their systems’ use more broadly (often termed “big data analytics”) and then apply efficiency measures as a result.

As we contemplated this IIoT situation during the BPC panel this week, one of several questions Jake Varn of the BPC asked us dealt with what barriers in our industries may prevent us from taking advantage of the IIoT. Big question, but my initial answer was that I don’t see barriers, but rather challenges.  The challenges for energy and water utilities that came to mind are:

  1. Having a dialog with their customers about what they really want and need.
  2. Deciding what the utilities in turn need to control and what is okay to be beyond their control; in other words, which automated devices can be incorporated as part of their private networks – networks that are intended to support safety, reliability and affordability.
  3. Ensuring that these integrated devices are cyber secure on the front end  before they are integrated into the private networks.
  4. Creating processes and systems within the utility for ongoing monitoring of these devices to enable greater efficiency and customer choice of energy and water use.
  5. Creating processes for maintaining cybersecurity over time.
  6. And this is a big one – ensuring that whichever devices the utilities control that are in turn integral to safety, reliability and affordability have available and reliable spectrum.

While there are other considerations, these are the big challenges I see.  The last involves federal policies that do not currently address the needs of critical infrastructure providers in a meaningful way.

The bottom line is that these challenges are solvable if policymakers, customers and the decision-makers in the utilities themselves understand the bigger picture—technology can enable greater efficiency, reliability, affordability and safety (think of the use of drones to assess damage in a dangerous situation) over time, but not if deployed without a clear understanding of these challenges. With a clear understanding, technology deployment can=success for utilities and =success for their customers.  Many of these challenges that could lead to success are being discussed within UTC, including coming up at our annual conference in Palm Springs from May 7-11.

Until we meet again…