October 13, 2020

UTC – Focus on Utilities & Broadband Technology

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch.

High-Speed Broadband – Vital Utility Service

Craig:
In recent years, many locations have added broadband to the list of vitally important services provided by utilities. Along the way, a global association known as the Utilities Technology Council, or UTC, has remained focused on the intersection of telecommunications and utility infrastructure. Founded more than 70 years ago in 1948, to advocate for the allocation of additional radio spectrum for power utilities, UTC has evolved into a dynamic organization representing electric, gas, and water utilities, along with natural gas pipelines, critical infrastructure companies, as well as other industry stakeholders. Our guest today was named president and CEO of the Utilities Technology Council in June of this year. She holds a bachelor’s degree in international business, along with master’s degrees in accounting and human resources management. It is a pleasure to welcome UTC president and chief executive officer, Sheryl Riggs.

Utilities Technology Council – It Takes a Village

Craig:
Pease give us an overview of the organization and the team that’s involved in the day-to-day work of UTC.

Sheryl:
As you’ve mentioned, we definitely represent all areas of utilities, electric, gas, and water utilities, but most importantly, we represent all types of utilities, investor-owned, public power, and cooperatives on the electric side. And this is because most utilities, face similar challenges with their communications networks and acquiring spectrum, building and managing their private networks, and navigating through the federal regulatory systems. They all face similar challenges, and as an organization we try to foster collaboration, every step of the way.

We want to shape the future of utility mission critical technologies through innovation, fostering collaboration, and influencing public policy, and we have a great team on hand at UTC, a small team of about 20 staff members that actually help execute these goals. We have advocacy team, we have a spectrum services team, a finance and operations team, and we have a membership and meetings team. It takes a village to raise awareness, and that’s what we’re trying to do at UTC, not just in the US, but globally.

Craig:
There is a communications component to the infrastructure for utilities that is a vital to the day-to-day operation of the utilities. That infrastructure plays a huge role in those who are looking to assist their members with providing broadband. Would you touch on that just a little bit?

Sheryl:
It can get very technical and deep, definitely. As far as trying to provide these services to our communities, we are in constant communication, and that requires a complex network, a reliable network. There’s a lot behind the scenes that people don’t realize that goes on to make sure that the lights stay on, that the water keeps running. Our name started out as United Telecom, and that basically speaks to how we wanted to focus on the telecom issues. And we have expanded and changed our name to Utilities Technology to also show that we’re not just about communication, but it’s the technology used in developing that communication, whether it’s actually communicating to each other, or its emergency services where consumers are trying to reach the utilities to let them know that there’s an emergency. Whatever it is, it’s various aspects of the communication system. That is a very important piece, actually executing all of these tasks to serve the community.

Broadband Connectivity – Universal Access Required

Craig:
Our discussion today is perfect in that you are just weeks away from participating in one of our industry’s biggest events, the broadband community’s virtual event. Your topic for that presentation is right in line with our conversation –  utilities are key partners in connecting unserved Americans.

Sheryl:
It was a wonderful experience to be a part of a panel with what I call the SMEs, the people on the ground, that actually deploy broadband. I was coming at it from a finance or accounting perspective, I always look at the numbers. I like looking at the numbers because they’re undeniable, and what it shows us, is that it doesn’t matter where you live, whether it’s rural, urban, or a suburban area, broadband accessibility is so important to our nation. Far too many Americans lack basic access to affordable or reliable broadband.

Thinking about the big picture, as far as the regulatory issues that our utilities are faced with trying to deploy this, it’s very nice to see and understand how they’re collaborating. Some of the bigger IOUs (Investor Owned Utilities) are actually taking what we call the middle mile as far as they can take it, and then working with the more rural areas, the co-ops, and the municipal utilities to actually take it to the last mile to the consumer. Because, actually, to really solve this problem and make strides, we’re going to have to collaborate and work together, and that’s what, hopefully, UTC is able to do, bring many utilities of different types to the table to have these difficult technology, solution-driven discussions.

Broadband Digital Divide – Economic and Educational Disadvantages

Craig:

You shared during that presentation a collaboration between Dominion Energy Virginia, and the Prince George Electric cooperative on broadband issues. There is ample opportunity for utilities to play a key role.  For many, what utilities do is taken for granted, and I think it was certainly the case before the pandemic hit. If you could speak to the importance of utilities, just in an overall framework, how it obviously was the case before, and then certainly the last seven months dealing with the COVID-19.

Sheryl:
I just wanted to clarify, Virginia Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, they work within state laws to allow the utilities to invest in grid modernization communication devices. West Virginia lawmakers also recently passed a similar law. I just wanted to just elaborate on that because it’s a trend. It’s what we see happening, and it’s very valuable. Even back in 2018, Entergy in Mississippi won approval for state regulators to sign a long-term contract with a regional Internet Service Provider that allows regional ISPs to deploy broadband networks. Collaboration is happening, which is a good thing. Utilities are a public service, and our members provide the most essential services in the world, which is electricity, gas, and water. And even now more than ever, when we have more people working remotely, distance learning, and they’re relying on electricity and broadband to do everything, not just cook and the basics, but to live, learn and earn. If we don’t educate our society and move forward, where are we going to be? If people aren’t able to work remotely during the pandemic or can’t work at all, what happens to our economy?

Spotlight on Broadband Access (or lack thereof) – COVID-19 pandemic

Craig:

It has long since gone past the point of being considered a luxury. And when you examine, truly, what percentage of the country doesn’t have access, it’s staggering. There was a Microsoft study last year that came up with the number 162 million. That’s virtually half of our nation. But knowing what an opportunity is there, utilities are perfectly positioned to play a leading role in bridging the digital divide, in getting connectivity to areas that have desperately needed that as we move forward. And I was really interested, when you touched on the collaboration, the partnerships, because that’s the sort of effort that I believe will speed the process of rolling out broadband, and I know that has to be encouraging to you and your team to see that that is becoming a trend in the industry.

Sheryl:
There is opportunity out of crisis, as I just said, whether it’s distance learning or working remotely, it’s a huge issue. People are saying, “Hey, I have to have connectivity. I have to have a reliable source so that I can power up my laptop or whatever device I’m using.” Give the consumer more information about what utilities are doing and how critical and how embedded they are in our everyday life.

Sheryl:

When I talk about collaboration, we have utilities of different types, and I’m talking about collaboration of other industries. We had our hospitals full to capacity. We were making convention centers emergency hospitals. Even at the UTC, I think we’re looking at issues in a more creative way. What kind of partnerships, maybe with even consumer advocacy groups, how we can work together to help utilities come to that table and get in front of the regulators and the policymakers to make a change, even on issues that we may not have made headway in the past.

UTC – Coast-to-Coast Member Collaboration

Craig:
Sheryl, you just touched on a concept that I think is very important when we look at the long-term success of utilities in serving Americans coast-to-coast, and that being collaboration. And I think that it probably is one of the hallmarks of utilities in that they are willing to collaborate to network, to work together and then learn from what others have done in the industry.

Sheryl:
Yes, we definitely try to work with our members, especially on the advocacy side. All of our departments work together to make sure that we’re doing everything to bring awareness, whether it’s through our content, our webinars, our training programs… our advocacy is basically the voice of our members. We work together to make sure that we are also connected, very closely connected, to our members to find out what’s going on the front lines.

RDOF Auction – Keeping Members in the Know

Sheryl:
There’s the passing of the RDOF auction funds. We help not only by keeping our members aware, but also broadband workshop in August, and we’re going to provide another workshop in November. And hopefully help them obtain these funds. We work on every angle with our members and the industry as a whole. We have core utility members, but we also have associate members that are a part of our vendor community. They provide services to our core members, our utilities. We want to keep the connection and foster collaboration, as well. That’s just a few ways that we try to get members a seat at the table.

Craig:
You look at your calendar, and it is amazing how many events there are going on in any given year. Obviously, those are phenomenal opportunities for interaction with the membership. A challenge, obviously, this year, given the impact of COVID-19, the pandemic, forcing most organizations to go to a virtual environment, how has that affected the impact of your scheduled meetings, both regional and national?

Sheryl:
Well, we definitely had to take a look, and the word we use a lot is pivot. We try to be flexible and try to navigate the best way we can with the constraints and the challenges that we face, whether it’s financial or the actual travel bans. I still feel like we’ve been able to pivot successfully by developing virtual events. On the plus side of the virtual events, we reached a record number, almost double than what we’ve had in the past three years. People who could not typically attend, whether it’s due to their work schedule, or their travel budget, with a virtual event, they are able to attend. Plus, we’ve put most of our sessions… our recorded sessions, on demand. That has given us another layer of flexibility. And what on-demand also does, is that it gives our members an opportunity to share it with their colleagues. It expands our audience so that’s been an unintended benefit of the virtual environment.

Sheryl:
The one thing, that was a challenge, for everyone who’s dealing in this virtual space, is networking. We have quite a few events, our annual conference, which is nationwide, our regional events. So, we didn’t have networking, which is so important in creating a lifetime of relationships. We did try to create some virtual networking opportunities, but it’s not the same as in-person. That definitely is still a challenge and we’re hopeful, but we are going to remain fluid as far as next year. We’re not going to ever return to a completely in-person model. We will always try to have a virtual offering so that we can continue to stay connected to those that can only attended our virtual events.

The UTC Foundation – Addressing Utilities’ Challenges

Craig:
That is a phenomenal development. One of the other things that I wanted to touch on this morning in our visit is the UTC foundation. Give us an overview, if you would, of the UTC Foundation.

Sheryl:
The UTC Foundation is a relatively new foundation, and what we trying to do is address some of the industry challenges and workforce challenges. We definitely need to focus on the senior workforce now, as they have a tremendous amount of knowledge. They’re so important, in my opinion, because they deal with it day-to-day. We want a knowledge exchange to occur with the senior workforce and the next set of emerging utility leaders. We need to connect the two. It’s not just filling a position or filling a job, but it’s introducing young students, whether it’s engineering or IT to the utility industry.

Sheryl:
I am looking for a collaboration between students and with some of our more seasoned professionals. We are working hard to develop some type of mentorship program. Hopefully, the UTC Foundation, as it grows, can grow those connections. We’ve reached out to students at different universities, but, we’re still in the early stages, it is our desire, to close that gap with the students and our utility workforce.

Craig:

You’re looking to align curriculum to the industry. And I know a lot of grants going out, so congratulations on the work of the foundation, because that deals not only with the ongoing ability of utilities to have their mission critical work done today, but in years ahead. I know that we look at the role of utilities on the local level, there’s a global picture, as well. Why is it important to be aware of what’s going on both locally, as well as globally?

Sheryl:
Well, once again, I’m going back to that word, collaboration. Issues or challenges that we deal with in the US may have come up in another part of the world, so we should learn from those experiences. That’s why it’s very important to exchange ideas, technology and information on a global level. And then, some issues just lend themselves to a global nature, like cybersecurity and security issue and keeping things safe and actual emergency responses. Weather challenges, hurricanes, and disasters. Natural disasters happen all throughout the world.

Craig:
I noticed in June of ’21, The UTC Telecom and Technology event is to be held in Portland, I believe. So, that’s exciting.

Sheryl:
It is. But with the pandemic, we’re going to remain fluid. At the end of the day, we’re just like our utilities, and we will follow their lead. Safety first, so we’re not going to return to an in-person model only. We’re preparing to continue whether it’s in-person or virtually. Our utilities continue through natural disasters, through all types of situations. They’ve kept the lights on. They’ve kept us powered. We’re modeling ourselves, after them and we’re going do what’s right for our membership.

Craig:

So pleased to be able to learn about UTC, the phenomenal work that you and your team have been doing and would love to be able to check back in with you at some point in the future to see how things are developing.

Sheryl:
Well, we love to talk. Thank you again for giving us the opportunity to bring awareness about utilities and the UTC. There’s a place for all utilities at the UTC. And I want to thank my UTC team. We are a small but mighty group, and we’ve worked together to make sure that all of these things are actually accomplished.

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