Not so many years ago, breaks in the chain of internal utility communication, human and technical, were frequent, and frustrated field crews sometimes found a public pay phone more reliable than their radios, particularly during emergencies.

It was easy to blame an overworked telecom department, but bigger issues contributed to restoration delays, starting with relying on customers to report outages. Then the proprietary and home-grown systems wouldn't talk to each other, so we couldn't automate cooperation between responsible departments.

In the 1990s, the biggest enterprisewide integration effort in history — the World Wide Web — resulted in the rapid and wide acceptance of TCP/IP communications protocols. The Internet was born, along with consistent means to allow networks and applications to talk to each other. The technology market responded with exotic offerings. Still, the risk-averse and mostly regulated power industry had no clear incentives to rush out and buy. Most just watched wistfully and incrementally upgraded where it clearly made functional and financial sense.

Then the smart grid initiatives arrived with a bang. Kick-started by federal stimulus funding in 2009, utility spending on information and communications technologies increased to more than $3 billion annually (and that number is expected to double during the next decade). The utility market instantly looked like an untapped gold mine, and manufacturers, new and old, began to compete hard for industry attention.

Buffet of Technologies and Strategies

Utilities now have a large menu of high-speed, high-capacity platforms to pick through, from below-ground fiber to above-earth satellites, and all manner of wireless in between. The last couple of years have seen pilots and major deployments of diverse, reliable communications technologies, particularly by investor-owned utilities. Smaller utilities and public power companies have been more likely to pick a single platform and spend less time watching pilots. In addition, public power often can offer other services over new broadband networks, opportunities not usually open to investor-owned utilities.

With all this mulling going on, communications requirements have grabbed a huge share of smart grid attention and intellectual energy. And they should. The advanced metering infrastructure requires massive investment in communications technology to support the estimated 65 million smart meters to be put in place by 2020. But smart grid objectives don't stop at data transportation and outage detection. The highest value lies at the system level: improved efficiency, reduced peak demand, improved reliability, faster restoration and better overall utility situational awareness and response.

Last year's storms gave us a peek at the payoff. Of course, even the best technology doesn't help much if lines are on the ground and there's no power available to restore, as was the case in the hardest-hit areas. But companies that had a fairly high degree of integration between OMS, SCADA, DA and crew dispatch cut way back on restoration times and costs.

A Utility Communications Bubble?

Still, we have to ask, are we putting so much focus on communications technology that we're losing sight of the bigger work to be done?

It's easy to believe that a communications system provides value just by existing, almost an end in itself. Some of that belief is due to the influence of Metcalfe's Law. In the 1980s, Robert Metcalfe showed that the value of a large network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. His original work was mostly concerned with phones and faxes, but in the early 1990s, Metcalfe's Law was trotted out to justify investments in networks, from early Ethernet to the World Wide Web.

So, as these things go, when it came to networks, “big” got beautiful and “huge” became holy. Both the tech industry and financial opportunists fell in love with the value of technology for technology sake. That led to over-investment and created the short-lived “tech bubble” that savaged our retirement plans. Perhaps unfairly, Metcalfe's Law is often stated as a major factor leading to the over-valuing of “connections” for connections sake.

Connections have no value apart from what they are connecting. And this is where we, as an industry, better be wary of overestimating the value of just having AMI and area-wide communications. If we don't go on to a full press effort of integrating operating systems and tearing down technical and management silos, we'll be selling short ourselves and our customers.

Don't Stop Now

It's time to drag out some of technologies that have been waiting in the wings. Outage indicators, dropped-line sensors, breaker contact wear monitors, sag monitors, you name it, there's a whole bunch of technologies that were never taken seriously because of required telecom expense.

So, the really tough work begins. We're challenged to develop new operating paradigms to make the best use of the new technology we already bought.