You already know water is not only important, but also essential for life. However, any 16-year-old member of the public would probably tell you that his or her most essential network isn’t water—it’s communications. Telecommunications makes it possible to tweet, check Facebook, and e-mail or text friends. Telecommunications is the key to connectivity and—along with water and energy—part of the infrastructure that society requires to advance, facilitate economic growth, and improve educational opportunities.
Growth in communications has been phenomenal. Today, there are roughly 270 million cell phone users in the United States. If you go back roughly 15 years ago, you would only find a few people driving around in BMWs with car phones, but that was it. Growth of communications connectivity (now many of us have two or three connected devices) has been meteoric.
Good connectivity is critical so local governments don’t fall behind the communications curve. If this happens, you will find economic development and residential growth declining, because people demand it. Just as people wouldn’t live in your city if you had poor drinking water, bad roads, or poor electricity, they’re not going to stick around if they can’t get strong communications connectivity. Without that, communities cannot continue to grow and prosper.
Telecommunications has always been about connectivity. Those old enough to remember Lily Tomlin’s humorous portrayal of Ernestine—the wayward telephone switchboard operator from the comedy show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—will realize that a switchboard operator’s job description was to establish connectivity. Operators controlled connectivity between homes or businesses by physically relocating plugs and cords. Today, the technicians who climb cell phone towers are really establishing connectivity not just for your cell phone, but also for all those different devices that depend on wireless connectivity instead of the old-fashioned switchboard.
It’s been said that soon every device that can be connected will be connected. The projection I read says that by the year 2020 we’ll have 24 billion connected devices (that’s up from nine billion today). This is going to create a tremendous amount of data. There’s a cycle that you go through, in terms of compartmentalizing and organizing data then converting it into information. Once you’ve put collected data into a form from which you can extract relevant information, you can make knowledgeable decisions. All of those things feed a smart water grid, a smart energy grid, a smart transportation grid, and even a smart parking meter grid.
It’s important to think about how your community is getting involved in providing connectivity so you can make knowledgeable and informed planning decisions about community growth. If you don’t, you might end up like the cities that missed the railroads back in the 1800s. You can read historic accounts of cities that were bypassed by the railroads in that time period; they fell into sharp decline and most closed completely. Communities that think telecommunications is a passing fad: they don’t really need all that bandwidth, and connectivity will regret it. Not climbing onto the technology, communications, and connectivity bandwagons will leave communities in the dust, because all of these drive prosperity.
I’ve seen a statistic that says 25% of the jobs in North Carolina depend on broadband technology. If your community doesn’t have robust communication, economic development is going to be constrained. According to AT&T, every dollar of direct investment in broadband technology spurs $10 of secondary investment. It’s all to feed the kinds of devices that we hold in our hands every day and the kind of things that allow people to do their jobs more productively, effectively, quickly, and better. I saw a sign over the front door of a tree nursery that says, “The best time to plant a tree was yesterday, but the next best time is today.” If you want to grow your community from a seedling into a mighty sequoia, you need to invest now.
People are often hesitant to buy a technology tool today, because they know better technology will be available tomorrow. Unfortunately, you can miss out on a tremendous amount of opportunity that way. Communities need to invest in replacing the older technology to make the grid smart. Our grid isn’t “dumb” now, but it’s not getting any smarter if we don’t advance it through evolving tools–just as people who don’t pursue continuing education will fall behind. Communities that don’t continue to advance with the technology that’s available will stall.
For example, airline travelers will choose to connect in other cities where airport WiFi is better and they can download movies while changing planes. Soon your city will notice that airport traffic is down. You will also notice that new businesses don’t move to your community, because they need certain technology to create jobs and grow the industry. That’s the future, and communities need to strategically plan for it.
Communications connectivity is essential for economic development and for improving water and wastewater management, electricity grid, public transportation systems, and public safety organizations.
As Cindy Wallis-Lage, president of Black & Veatch’s global water business observes, you can’t manage what you don’t monitor. The rapid development and application of new telecommunications technologies throughout the US offer increased potential for water as well as energy management efficiencies. These technologies can facilitate the monitoring and sharing of data at a new level.
My colleague would also mention the American Society of Civil Engineers’ reference to our loss of 7 billion gallons of drinking water each day. Greater application of and access to telecommunications infrastructure can improve the monitoring and management of watersheds, pumping plants, treatment plants, and distribution systems. The ability for end-to-end monitoring and management of the water supply chain provides opportunities for greater efficiency, as compared to system elements that operate independently. Accessibility to the right data moves decision-making closer to real-time and improves the energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the water industry.Water utilities that use Advanced Metering Infrastructure only in a drive-by mode to automate their billing process are missing out. Data from smart water meters that are connected systemwide can be used in a variety of beneficial ways—from notifying homeowners about potential leaks through e-mail messages to facilitating real-time decisions about water production and energy efficiency. Utility customers soon may be clamoring for individual water use data to help manage their water bills, which in turn could help well-connected utilities better manage conservation efforts.