African Utilities are primed to contribute to growth through ICT development

Africa ranks the lowest in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) skills in the world, a distinction bestowed upon the continent in the annual ICT Development Index (IDI). The report goes on to highlight several other challenges related to exorbitant data costs and infrastructure development. But within these challenges lie great possibilities and room for ICT development on the Continent. AUTC spoke to the CEO and President of its parent body, the UTC, Joy Ditto about why African Utilities are primed to contribute to the growth potential in Africa through ICT development…

Looking at ICT holistically, why is ICT important in how utilities function around the world?

Information and communications technology (ICT) underpin electric reliability. As such, utilities have long deployed their own “private” communication networks because the commercial networks deployed by telecommunications companies are not built for the level of reliability required by utilities.

Even prior to the advent of digital communications, utilities were using more basic voice communications via both wireline and wireless networks to manage maintenance and restoration. Utilities now use both voice and data/digital communications technologies for reliability and more cutting edge “smart” technologies that enable them to integrate intermittent renewable generation into both distribution and transmission grids; utilise storage in so doing (where affordable); and have much greater situational awareness about the state of their infrastructures.

Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) technology is an example of a technology implemented in the ‘80s and ‘90s that is widely used by utilities to manage their grids, while technology like a sensor is more recent. Sensors give utilities a more granular view of the physical state of specific infrastructure like transmission lines. The voice communications utilities deploy include simple “walkie-talkie” devices as well as land-line and cellular phones.

What is the UTC’s role in driving ICT at utilities in particular?

UTC was established in the United States over 70 years ago to ensure that utilities could access the radio-spectrum needed to deploy wireless networks – such spectrum was, and

still is, controlled by the federal government. We were also formed as a forum to share technical challenges among utilities, but also to bring together manufacturers of communications equipment to interface with the utility sector.

Today, we provide extensive advocacy for spectrum access globally (in the U.S., Canada, South America, Europe, and now, Africa) via the International Telecommunication Union, its affiliated global regions, and, in some cases, in individual countries. We also work on the issue of cybersecurity and supply chain security, both ongoing risks that have been created by our increased use of digital technology.

In addition, as the evolution of communications technology has led to the discussion of 5G (or, the fifth generation of the evolution of widespread digital communications), UTC is seeking to understand how it will impact utilities. Finally, UTC continues to provide a global forum for utilities to understand ICT networks and to work with their trusted vendors to enable and optimise such networks.

What is the significance of adding an Africa chapter, the AUTC, to the UTC’s portfolio?

The AUTC chapter came about just three years ago, so is still an emerging group, but UTC saw a great opportunity to bring some of the lessons learned from elsewhere in the world as many parts of Africa continue to build out their electric grids. In bringing that knowledge, the hope is to enable African utilities to bypass the challenges/pitfalls others had to face in other parts of the world.

We also wanted to provide a forum for those utilities in Africa that have more extensive utility networks to talk about the ongoing challenges/opportunities of deploying their networks with other African utilities – both electric and water (water utilities also need ICT networks and have many of the same needs as electric utilities).

Why is ICT development an exciting prospect for Africa in particular?

Africa is very much open to innovation on the edge of the grid given the potential of solar and other renewables. ICT can be deployed to maximize the cost-benefits of distributed energy resources and Africa is a place where those technologies, along with appropriate cybersecurity measures, can be assessed from the beginning of such deployment.

What challenges and opportunities are unique to African utilities?

I think the biggest challenges are cost, ongoing operation and maintenance of both utility and ICT infrastructure from a cost perspective and ensuring that disparate countries in a vast geography gain similar understanding of utilities’ ongoing needs.

One of the major opportunities I haven’t yet discussed is the leveraging of utilities’ networks to enable broadband deployment for customers – meaning, certain aspects of utilities’ networks (fiber) are deployed more cost-effectively with extra bandwidth that is unneeded by the utility and could be used for the broadband communications needs of the utilities’ customers.

Also, the ability to have electric, gas and water utilities “link arms” and share ICT networks could be more possible in the near-term in Africa if done at the beginning of a build out. This is often termed “smart cities” or “smart communities,” but it is really the concept of leveraging “smart” ICT networks across utility sectors.

Against the backdrop of these challenges and opportunities, how can UTC and the AUTC support African utilities through ICT development?

UTC and AUTC can support African utilities by providing a global forum for discussion of both the technical aspects of building and deploying ICT networks as well as the policy implications. We provide ongoing research (we just released a whitepaper on utilities and 5G – “Cutting Through the Hype: 5G and its Potential Impacts on Electric Utilities”), technical meetings and a quarterly publication discussing these issues, among other things.

What is your message to African utilities? Why should they join the AUTC?

If you want the ability to access 70 years of global knowledge on utilities’ ICT networks and bypass the learning curve, join the AUTC!