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Streamlining Operations: Government entities and utilities upgrade their legacy systems

October 01, 2013
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Several government agencies, at both the central and state levels, are adopting telecom and IT for better governance. Telecom is being used as a medium to provide up-to-date, accurate and timely information to citizens.

Utilities involved in the water, power, piped gas, liquefied natural gas and waste disposal segments are likewise banking on telecom for effective delivery of services.

Both government and utility agencies are looking beyond basic telephony services and are upgrading their legacy communication systems through the adoption of new technologies. Since the primary focus is to improve service efficiency and reduce operational costs, most of these organisations have shifted to a paperless system by automating critical functions.

Government agencies require strong broadband communications infrastructure to support advanced applications. Their telecom networks generally comprise an IP-based wide area network (WAN), which is used to access triple-play services including voice, data and broadband on a single platform. WAN also allows access to geographic information system (GIS)-enabled datasets and applications with robust data access mechanisms for planning, design optimisation, improving positional accuracy and outage management and better utilisation and management of network assets. In addition, these organisations deploy other IP-based technologies such as ISDN, IP-VPN, MPLS and leased lines. They use leased lines for ensuring 24x7 connectivity and MPLS for supporting their operations in multiple cities.

Further, videoconferencing along with audio- and web-based applications is being widely used by several organisations. For last mile connectivity, utilities depend on technologies such as optic fibre cable, radio frequency and Wi-Fi. For example, the point-to-multipoint solution provides a cost-effective broadband network. It is a last mile access alternative to xDSL or cable modems.

In addition to strengthening the telecom infrastructure, government organisations and utilities are investing in various mobility applications. The deployment of enterprise-wide software applications helps utilities optimise technology, and enables employees to access real-time information and manage transaction processes across the organisation. The most commonly used applications in public sector organisations include enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), supply chain management (SCM) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA).

Solutions such as ERP enable core utility processes including power generation, and transmission and distribution (T&D) as well as corporate services, offering more predictable results at lower costs. Over the years, SCADA systems have helped the energy and utility sectors to significantly improve security and take cost-effective maintenance measures. SCADA systems can impact companies’ approach towards restructuring business processes, and responding to real-time knowledge flow. Over the next few years, SCADA systems are expected to attract huge investments from energy utilities. Under the central government’s Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Programme, 77 towns have been identified for SCADA implementation. Also, there are plans to undertake smart grid pilot projects, which will drive SCADA adoption by power companies. With huge investments in the T&D, oil and gas pipelines, water and wastewater systems and city gas distribution (CGD), the public sector will witness significant demand for SCADA and control systems.

Network security is a key concern for government utilities. To ensure round-the-clock surveillance of assets, utilities including gas, water, CGD and energy utilities deploy security solutions such as multi-site video surveillance, campus monitoring, traffic management and control, public site monitoring and perimeter security. Also, to safeguard their telecom networks, government agencies deploy antivirus and firewall security.

Government utilities are expected to significantly increase their IT spend over the next few years. Currently, the central and state governments are undertaking various projects aimed at improving efficiency, bringing in transparency and e-enabling projects for citizen-facing services, as well as workflow-related projects. Some of the major telecom and IT initiatives in the recent past comprise government-led projects such as the Unique Identification programme, e-procurement project in Andhra Pradesh and the land records digitisation project in Karnataka. In addition, several states have made large investments in telecom and IT tools for modernising their power distribution system and reducing transmission losses. Further, a large number of public sector banks are upgrading their legacy systems to compete with technology-savvy and modernised private banks. Leading public sector banks are making significant investments in core banking systems and upgrades or integration with other peripheral systems.  Public sector banks are also expected to make significant investments in areas such as collection, contact centres, business intelligence, mobility and IT outsourcing.

tele.net surveyed various government organisations and utilities in the power, water, and oil and gas sectors to assess their telecom requirements and solutions, and the key challenges faced by them. The following questions were asked in the survey:

• What are the key technology requirements of the organisation?

•  What mix of service providers and vendors is used?

•  What are the biggest concerns with respect to telecom infrastructure?

•  What are some of the mobility and enterprise applications implemented by the organisation?

•  Which network security tools are used?

•  Which redundancy tools are utilised?

•  Which new product or service holds the most relevance for the organisation?

 Key technology requirements

For the government organisations and utilities surveyed, the main objective of using telecom tools was to increase efficiency and reduce operational costs. Most of these organisations have upgraded their legacy systems and established robust telecom networks. For connectivity, they are using technologies such as IP-based WAN, which provides broadband connectivity as well as voice and data services on a single platform, videoconferencing, very small aperture terminals (VSATs), IP-VPNs and MPLS.

By automating their day-to-day functions, leading water and oil and gas utilities have moved to a paperless environment and improved connectivity and increased operational efficiency. For last mile connectivity, technologies such as radio frequency (RF), Wi-Fi and optic fibre cable (OFC) are frequently used.

The Delhi government, for instance, has set up the Delhi State Wide Area Network and introduced several e-governance initiatives. A major player in the power sector, Tata Power is using MPLS-WAN technology to meet its communication needs. For last mile access, the company uses local area network and Wi-Fi technology. For its offices in Mumbai, Tata Power has deployed an optic fibre-based ring topology using gigabit bandwidth while its remote project sites are connected via an MPLS network. Another power utility, Madhya Pradesh Poorv Kshetra Vidyut Vitaran Company Limited (MPPKVVCL), uses MPLS as WAN links for connecting network servers and its collection kiosks to servers. The company uses 29 servers for low tension billing and six servers for high tension billing. “The company has deployed WAN links for connecting servers. Dual technologies including RF and MPLS are being used to connect the servers,” says Dr Vivek Chandra, head, IT, MPPKVVCL. According to him, MPLS-based services have helped the company reduce network costs by 10-25 per cent as compared to data services (such as frame relay and asynchronous transfer mode). In addition, the utility has introduced camera-based meter reading and online bill payment facilities as well as a web-based system for substation maintenance.

Other players such as the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company (BESCOM), BSES Rajdhani Power Limited (BRPL) and the Income Tax Department have deployed multi-tiered communications infrastructure. BESCOM uses MPLS along with leased lines for data connectivity and wireless communication mediums for last mile access. It also uses several Oracle-based applications to streamline business processes. According to Gopal Saxena, chief executive officer, BRPL, the company uses a mix of wireless and wireline technologies to connect its distribution network. It avails of services from operators such as Reliance Communications (RCOM), Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL), Bharti Airtel and Tulip Telecom to meet its telecom requirements. Depending upon its requirements, BRPL uses several MPLS links of 512 kbps and 32 kbps to connect its distribution network and various offices, and uses wireless technology as backup. The Income Tax Department too uses ISDN and leased lines for the simultaneous use of voice and data services. A large number of leased lines have enabled the department to handle huge traffic on its network.

Large utilities also use applications such as SAP, ERP, CRM, SCADA and SCM. Power utilities have integrated SCADA networks with their state load despatch centres to improve monitoring and compliance with grid standards. They have replaced legacy power line carrier communication-based systems with an OFC network and have deployed GIS technology for mapping of sites. GIS helps power, water and gas utilities to map their networks in order to effectively and efficiently operate and maintain their assets. GIS also helps utilities share the geospatial database with all IT applications including billing, customer care, field workforce management, asset maintenance, HR applications, and sales and marketing.

Further, with the help of applications such as ERP, companies are able to access data across various departments. This allows them to make relevant data and information available to key personnel in different parts of the country. Government utilities have established data centres that help them store data and maintain uptime. BRPL has an in-house Tier 3 corporate data centre in Delhi, which has 40-45 servers operational round the clock. The company has sourced these servers from Sun, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

Service providers and vendors

Based on their requirement, utilities avail of telecom and IT services from various service providers and vendors such as Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Tata Communications, Bharti Airtel, Tata Teleservices Limited, MTNL, RCOM, Tulip Telecom, Hughes Communications India Limited, Wipro, IBM, Oracle, Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent and Sify Technologies Limited.

Key issues and concerns

Some of the key issues faced by utilities include integration of multiple technologies, timely upgradation of systems, the increasing cost of technology, selection of the appropriate service provider and vendor, and network downtime.

 Mobile and enterprise applications

The companies surveyed are using several enterprise applications including web hosting, videoconferencing, instant messaging, toll-free services, VoIP and audioconferencing. Mobile data connectivity, corporate intranet and mobile conferencing are some of the preferred mobile applications. For instance, BRPL uses SAP R/3 software for consumer interface such as billing, besides other mobility applications. “BRPL uses ERP tools for managing financial contracts, which include material management, human capital management, plant management, project systems, document management system, industry solutions for utilities, business intelligence and dashboards, employee portal and supplier relationship management solutions,” says Saxena. The utility has developed an in-house meter reading application that generates data related to load profile and helps in profiling and analysing the consumption pattern of users. BRPL has also deployed a Global Positioning System-based vehicle tracking system.

India’s largest power producer, NTPC Limited is using SAP for running various applications such as commercial billing, e-procurement, and plant performance reports including plant load factors and data generation. Currently, Tata Power is using the enterprise single sign on and the single identity management platforms, email solutions that offer infinite storage and ensure email continuity in the case of network failure, and enterprise storage solutions with infinite access for GIS.

 Network redundancy

For backup and data recovery, government utilities use firewalls, storage area network systems, security audits, security operation control centres, leased lines, ISDN lines and data archiving. In addition, they utilise mirror servers and disaster recovery sites for data storage and backup.

 Network security

Securing their communication networks is a priority for the majority of respondents. The most commonly used platforms include firewalls, built-in server security, antivirus software, and password protection and intrusion prevention systems.

 The way forward

Most of the utilities have plans to expand their existing telecom infrastructure to meet their growing business needs. The Department of Posts (DoP) has undertaken an end-to-end IT modernisation programme to equip itself with modern technologies and systems in order to efficiently serve a large customer base. The India Post 2012 IT modernisation project is expected to help the DoP expand its reach through increased customer interaction channels and new lines of business. According to P. Gopinath, secretary, DoP, the scope of the project includes developing and supporting mail, finance and accounts, HR and customer interaction management solutions for all channels including the rural information and communications technology platform, data migration, service level agreement, and call centre and centralised 24x7 service desk operation. The DoP has appointed Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to implement the project. As part of the project, TCS will implement end-to-end security solutions and enterprise management systems for the DoP.

Meanwhile, NTPC is planning to upgrade and strengthen its telecom network by adding more secondary fibre-based links to enhance connectivity at its plant sites across the country. Similarly, BRPL plans to adopt new technologies to further improve its various in-house processes to deliver an enhanced consumer experience. “The power utility is focused on completing the virtualisation of its desktops and would adopt cloud computing. With this, the company aims to bring down the cost of ownership, achieve improved returns on investment and enhance network security,” says Saxena.

Going forward, government organisations and utilities are likely to adopt solutions such as management information systems and energy management systems for establishing robust and secure telecom networks.

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