For over a century utilities across America have delivered electricity, gas, and water to most of America. We may complain about occasional disruptions in services or instances of poor customer service. However most us adjust the furnace, flip a light switch, or turn on the faucet without even thinking about it. Electric, gas, and water utilities are responsible for enabling a quality of life that many parts of the world have yet to establish. It might appear that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
The fact is that we are literally experiencing the ushering of a new age. This new age is marked by the integration of digital technology and globalization. It is safe to say that a water or electric utility in the Midwest will not address requests to increase services to auto plants and steel mills as was the case during most of the twentieth century. The exponential growth of the Internet over the last ten years alone is driving public and private sector institutions to deliver more technology services than most of us could have ever imagined. In addition, the residential and small business appetite for bandwidth seems to be insatiable.
We are fortunate that President Obama had enough vision to develop the National Broadband Plan for Connecting America. This plan outlines a collaborative plan for a technology infrastructure build out that is crucial to sustaining our way of life. The industry sectors of focus for such collaboration include government, energy management, healthcare, and education. A guiding principle of the plan is to ensure that service providers have access to infrastructure such as poles, roof tops, conduits, and rights of way. As fate would have it, such utility-owned infrastructure is often ubiquitous within its service territory. In short, our Federal government is recommending that joint use of this infrastructure is an absolute necessity. An excerpt from the plan states “Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness, and a better way of life”.
The good news is that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act approved over $7 Billion in economic stimulus funding to expand access to broadband services within the United States. The common thread of the $840 Billion economic stimulus funding is the increased need for broadband services. Utilities need to plan for all of the new attachment requests to poles and other infrastructure. There are of course the concerns of security and other risks, but there are always answers to technological challenges. Business models and governance models will also have to evolve in order to handle the deluge of requests.
Utilities have to begin to proactively develop joint use models that best serve the bottom line interest of the utility while serving the best interests of society. Organizations in many other industry sectors have already developed triple bottom line business models that effectively serve the following; people, planet, and profit. Utilities have to also begin to understand that the adoption of broadband services among its customer base serves all stakeholders. A utility maintains customer information about every home, business, and commercial entity within its service territory. As utilities begin to use customer segmentation and data analytics to obtain meaningful business intelligence, this will be a game changer.
In the short-term, a utility may fulfill a request from government or an educational institution to provide pole access and power to a wireless access point. The big picture approach would be to enable them facilitate a plan for intelligent transportation or distance learning. The point is that a utility is actually helping to ensure a new and sustainable business model that will ultimately rely on the continued efficient delivery of electricity, gas, and water.