Water Utility Enhances Reliability with Integrated Technology Upgrades
Technology convergence providers can help the public utility sector integrate key technology infrastructure, including phone, security and network systems.
By Del Williams
For public utilities that provide water while maintaining the physical infrastructure, it’s critical to ensure reliable, uninterrupted service and data integrity. This includes water metering/billing, compliance reporting, IT network cybersecurity, physical security of local and remote sites, and data collection for rate cases.
Given the challenge, utilities are increasingly outsourcing the integration and installation of VoIP phones, network, physical security and cybersecurity systems to single-source providers that are experts in all systems. With broad expertise, integrators can improve reliability and extract value from each individual system without overextending the utility’s inhouse information technology (IT) staff. Just as important, a single-source provider can find ways to reduce costs without affecting performance or security.
Protecting Service Reliability
San Gabriel Valley Water Company (SGVW) is a privately owned full-service water utility that provides services to approximately 94,000 customers in Southern California. The company contracts with municipalities to maintain water infrastructure, process payments and manage wastewater treatment. To protect service and rate-case data, the water utility relies on a diverse technology infrastructure.
According to Jeff Johnston, network system administrator at SGVW, he and a colleague provide support for the entire spectrum, including the IT network, phones and physical security systems at six offices. This includes associated utilities Fontana Water Company and Montebello Water Company.
Because the scope of the work and systems is so extensive, Johnston says that SGVW depends on a technology integrator, BTI Communications Group, to install and monitor many of the systems. BTI is a technology convergence provider serving the public utility, logistics, aerospace and healthcare sectors. The company acts as a single-source provider of complex phone (VoIP), network and physical security systems, down to installation of wiring and conduit as well as cybersecurity monitoring and protection.
“We have been working with BTI for at least eight years, starting with our phone system,” explains Johnston. “We utilize all their IT services to help maintain infrastructure and security, including daily monitoring and reporting. It relieves some of the pressure because we do not have to constantly monitor and check ourselves. They streamline the process.”
Turning to a technology integrator and managed service provider helps the water utility focus on its top priorities, including keeping the water flowing, taking care of customers and ensuring data collection for rate cases.
Johnston notes that SGVW utilizes a variety of applications, including ERP systems, to conduct various company functions, such as meter reading, customer service and administrative work.
In this network environment, BTI manages all the utility’s data backups, network switches and wireless access points. The IT integrator also monitors every server and desktop PC on the network and provides all software updates and patches.
At times, providing IT services can require additional technical expertise that goes beyond SGVW’s inhouse capabilities. “I consider BTI our top-level support team,” adds Johnston.
Today, many public utilities need help protecting their IT infrastructure from cyberattacks such as ransomware, which is malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid.
According to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC), “Over the last several years, ransomware has become the number one threat to both public- and private-sector organizations and has grown in both scale and sophistication—and ransomware attacks continue to strike businesses, government agencies and individuals daily.”
The Pennsylvania PUC strongly recommends that “regulated utilities conduct physical and cybersecurity risk assessments on their critical infrastructure.”
Johnston is particularly appreciative of the help he receives in ensuring network security.
“We can regularly test to ensure that our infrastructure is secure, and that our data has not been compromised or penetrated,” he adds. “BTI monitors and tracks everything 24/7, which provides peace of mind. If an issue arises, they alert us in numerous ways, so we do not have to constantly monitor and check. They have brought [potential concerns] to our attention that we were not aware of, and they streamline our process.”
While public utilities can do much of this inhouse with a dedicated IT staff that has sufficient expertise and technology, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. As a cost-effective alternative, an IT integrator and cybersecurity firm can provide this service on an outsourced basis for pennies on the dollar.
For ease of use, all relevant information is provided in a dashboard format that’s viewable remotely, with a team of specialists monitoring network conditions and threats in the background. The end goal is to perpetually keep operations fully functional, and data safe and secure, without the risk of a serious hack.
According to Johnston, another critical aspect of IT for public utilities is maintaining and collecting data for general rate cases.
General rate cases are proceedings used to address the costs of operating and maintaining the utility system and the allocation of those costs among customer classes. Typically, large utilities collect data to justify a proposed rate increase, such as historical company expenses, details on infrastructure improvement projects and expense projections, and apply to a state PUC for approval every three years.
“Financially, [public utilities] cannot miss any costs on their rate cases,” explains Johnston. “If data is lost for any reason, they not only lose the reimbursement for the cost, but they also cannot apply those costs to the rate case.”
SGV also turned to its technology integrator to deploy physical security, access control and surveillance systems for its buildings and remote sites.
“We are constantly improving security at all our buildings to ensure the infrastructure is as secure as it can be,” he says. “Over the past five years, we have implemented 24/7 surveillance and access-control systems at all our buildings, and a key card or gate card is required to enter any facility.”
Although technology integration sounds like a high-end service with a commensurate price tag, that’s not necessarily the case. An integrated approach with best-of-breed solutions delivers economies of efficiency and scale that often are passed on to the customer.
Getting What You Pay For
Lower-price solutions, including security cameras from overseas providers, may not adequately do the job, may present a real risk from intrinsic cyber vulnerabilities and will always cost more in maintenance.
According to BTI President Eric Brackett, “From our experience, many customers are not aware how products, especially those purchased based on price, can bring embedded vulnerabilities into a network. Cameras manufactured in China, for example, have susceptibilities that are known to hackers. Major breaches have already occurred with what we call pre-hacked technology.”
Technologies that don’t carry the risk of being pre-hacked can become vulnerable when users fail to fully implement the security features on the connected network. Fortunately, a technology integrator with a background in IT can implement advanced cyber-security processes to block viruses and hackers from destructive practices.
Johnston sees the value in integrating all the necessary phone, IT and physical security infrastructure with a trusted expert vendor instead of multiple vendors that must be coordinated with separately.
“I want one phone number to call, one email address to send to experts that can provide us whatever [technology] services we need,” says Johnston. “Also, the integrator can stay informed about the latest and greatest new technology, software and applications on the market. If we did all that work ourselves, we would need six separate pieces of software and the time to evaluate all the options in each category.”
With an outsourced IT approach, Johnston and the water utility’s internal staff can concentrate on its business needs at a fraction of the cost of hiring additional, competent IT administrators.
Public utilities have long depended on inhouse IT equipment and support. However, relying on a single-source, expert integrator can cost-effectively improve the reliability of service, data integrity and overall security. For many utilities, that’s an increasingly attractive option.