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5G: The Next Big Thing in Utilities

Sudheer  Warrier's picture
Vice President and Global Head of Utilities TCS

Sudheer Warrier is Vice President and Global Head of Utilities at TCS. He has 30 years of experience with a proven track record as a leader in setting up and scaling global businesses. In his...

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Very soon, we will be inhabiting a community where autonomous vehicles are the norm, dynamic traffic controls are redirecting vehicles, drones are inspecting bridges, and internet of things (IoT) sensors are analyzing water levels. This shift will be driven by 5G networks, but its impact on multiple industries, including utilities, will extend beyond telecommunications. In Utilities, 5G will reimagine business models, enhance operational efficiency, and more. Besides, the advent of 5G will give more power to the prosumer—consumers who are energy producers—to create their own energy products and make their own choices. Let us see how.

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The multiplier effect of 5G and other digital technologies

In moving from a centralized to a decentralized architecture by adopting millions of connected smart devices, the utilities industry has an increasing need for low-latency real-time information transfer. With 5G and digital technologies come an increased capacity of handling large data volumes. This will allow utilities to improve field worker productivity using augmented reality and enable remote operations of assets. Besides, increased speed, lower latency, and higher reliability mean better connectivity for IoT devices. This will allow utilities to use smart wearables to ensure field worker safety along with a faster transition to smart grids and smart cities.

Adapting to the 5G revolution

Utility firms are adopting best-fit use cases to capitalize on the fast-approaching 5G. Meanwhile, we also see this as a significant opportunity for utilities to build their own network rather than buying one. A recent survey by global trade association Utilities Technology Council (UTC) found that three-fourth of utilities in the US own over 80% of their networks and want to build their own 5G connectivity. For instance, Duke Energy is currently considering to create its own private broadband LTE system, while New York Power Authority (NYPA) has piloted its own private wireless LTE network. In another instance of a utility adopting 5G, Icomera, a subsidiary of clean energy company ENGIE Solutions, completed the trial of the world’s first 5G-enabled router on a train route in Sweden in 2020.

A phased approach to 5G adoption

The US will account for an estimated 50% of the total 5G mobile subscriptions by 2025, while Europe will be 29%. In this race to maximize 5G adoption, the utilities industry will play a central role by sharing existing infrastructure with 5G networks and driving consumption at the edge, even in remote communities. To get on board the 5G journey, utilities need to strategize and phase their approach, to gain incremental benefits from the transformation:

  1. Operations: Use cases fundamental to the day-to-day operations of utilities, such as smart wearables for field workers and better collaboration tools.
  2. Transformation: Use cases that transform the way utilities operate, such as connected homes, AR for the field workforce, and more.
  3. Reimagination: Use cases at the intersection of different industries involve transitioning from a product-centric approach (like electricity, gas, water, etc.) to a theme-centric one such as smart homes, smart transportation, and more.

Successful implementation of 5G use cases in utilities

The first step in rolling out 5G is scaling the infrastructure to support fast bandwidth speeds. Collaboration with enterprises across industries is the next step on the 5G journey for utilities, and with this, comes the need to identify and collaborate with the right technology partners. Adopting intelligent and secure communication frameworks will push utilities to the forefront of increased collaboration between governments, mobile network operators (MNOs), prosumers, and other stakeholders.

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Steve Lindsay's picture
Steve Lindsay on May 17, 2021

Sudheer - nice post and I think you are spot on that 5G will transform the utility industry and smart cities in very positive ways. The one area I noticed you didn't touch upon is security (full disclosure - I work for a cybersecurity company so I notice these things!).  My stance on 5G is that the technology will enable many more IoT devices but also open up the attack surface at the same time. With devices able to communicate with each and operate on those commands, authentication of those commands becomes crucial.  The most secure method of authentication is using digital certificates over PKI through a verified Root of Trust.  5G opens up the ability of devices to now operate more securely as well.  

With the attacks we have seen just in 2021, we know that our systems are under attack from bad actors, whether foreign adversaries or internal threats, and we need to make sure we have the proper security protocols in place.

- Steve

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 17, 2021

Collaboration with enterprises across industries is the next step on the 5G journey for utilities, and with this, comes the need to identify and collaborate with the right technology partners. 

Do you find the customer needs to be engaged at this stage as well? Or is that more trouble than it's worth? 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 18, 2021

"Very soon, we will be inhabiting a community where autonomous vehicles are the norm..."

Sudheer, I'm a contrarian in the belief autonomous vehicles will ever be the norm, and continue to have my belief confirmed in unexpected ways.

This afternoon my wife and I were test-driving an electric car, one which supposedly has the most advanced AI features and a collision-avoidance system that is second to none. The dash display showed every car in front of us and every car behind us in 3-D - it was truly amazing in its ability to pick out details of our surroundings.

My wife was driving but staring at the display, trying to find out how to turn our seat warmers off, when I glanced up and saw a man riding into traffic from between two parked cars on a bicycle. I shouted "STOP!". Fortunately the man swerved when my wife slammed on the brakes, and we managed to avoid hitting him. But I suspect things might have turned out differently, and tragically so, if I hadn't been paying attention.

While waiting for him to get out of our way I checked the collision avoidance system. He was nowhere to be seen - 100% invisible to our car.

Autonomous vehicles will be the norm when decent, compassionate people will freely accept their automated car has run someone over while they were looking the other way. They will be the norm when not only Automated Intelligence (AI) has been perfected, but Automated Responsibility (AR). That day will never come, however. Though the ability of autonomous vehicles to pick out details of a driver's surroundings will continue to get more and more amazing, it will never be amazing enough.

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