The world has become a lot less predictable in the past few decades. This is particularly true of the weather
. Droughts on the West Coast, severe storms on the East Coast and freezing temperatures in Texas have pushed utilities to the brink.
Beyond natural disasters, water utilities increasingly experience threats to their operations in the form of cyberattacks, energy insecurity and aging infrastructure.
Water utilities must adapt to minimize risk to normal service—and reliable communication systems are critical to do so. A reliable communication system should:
- Provide information about operations throughout and after an event.
- Allow utility workers to send relevant information to the appropriate parties, including repair teams, municipal leaders and customers
What Is Reliable Communication?
Communication technology is far more capable than it was just two decades ago. But reliable communication is about more than just a single device.
Reliable communication requires a complete network, incorporating everything from cellphones to endpoints to sensors, as well as the infrastructure that makes it all possible.
A reliable communication network has these four features:
- Robustness. This refers to how tough the system is. In other words, how much can an individual component withstand? For example, at what temperature range can a sensor operate without failure? How durable are the communication towers that transmit the data? Robustness also refers to how protected a system is, both physically (e.g., fencing) and digitally (e.g., security protocols).
- Redundancy. No system component is immune to failure, so a reliable communication system has ample redundancy in place. This may be access to backup towers or a proliferation of sensors to ensure infrastructure can be adequately monitored, even if some parts go down. It also means having backup generators to support operations should the utility lose power.
- Reconnaissance. Water utilities must be agile enough to react to an event quickly. For example, if the utility manages one or more stormwater reservoirs, operators must have the ability to quickly lower the basin level during a storm to prevent overflow and flooding. The same is true of the utility’s ability to identify pipe bursts, inform necessary personnel and issue repair orders.
- Resiliency. A system’s resiliency is defined by how quickly it can bounce back from an event. Perhaps the problem can’t be avoided, but how fast can it be remedied?
4 Steps for Building a Reliable Communication Network
Together, robustness, redundancy, reconnaissance and resiliency contribute to how well a system can respond to unforeseen incidents. A utility can build a reliable communication network by following these steps:
- Ensure balance. Although the network must have elements of robustness, redundancy, reconnaissance and resiliency, keeping each aspect in balance is crucial. For example, a water tower can be designed to withstand 250-mph winds. However, it might cost three times as much as one that can withstand 140-mph winds. For this reason, it may be more prudent to have contingency plans and crossties to mitigate the risk.
- Monitor performance. It isn’t enough to use the network to monitor the assets. Utilities must also have visibility into the performance of the communication network itself. Personnel should be able to ascertain whether communication nodes are connected and whether the network has enough bandwidth to send the volume of data needed before, during and after an event.
- Account for maintenance and updates. Technology evolves at an astounding pace. From electronics and batteries to software interconnectivity and compatibility, it’s critical to ensure the network can evolve and grow with the speed of innovation.
- Plan for growth. There are two kinds of growth that water utilities must prepare for. The first is population and associated demand. The second is the amount of data needed by software and other systems to maximize return on investment. The network needs to be flexible and expandable so that as needs grow, the communication bandwidth and capability can grow along with it.
This may seem like a lot for a water utility to take on. After all, most water utilities don’t employ network engineers.
Fortunately, utilities can opt for Network as a Service (NaaS) solutions. NaaS allows utilities to leverage an existing cellular network that is monitored, managed and maintained on their behalf. In other words, water utilities can install sensors, endpoints and other assets throughout distribution and treatment systems and use an established communication network to handle the data.
With this blog post as a guide, water utilities can ensure their communication systems have the robustness, redundancy, reconnaissance and resiliency needed to help them now and into the future.