Let’s talk about the ArcGIS Utility Network - who’s done it, who’s doing it, and why?

September 20, 2019 Brian Bell

If you’re an Esri customer or an Esri business partner and you interact in any way with our utility industry teams (electric, gas, water, telecom or pipelines), I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about the Utility Network. Some of the information may have been helpful while the rest may have been confusing. You probably heard a lot of broad statements about the technical benefits, a little bit about who’s actually using or implementing it today, and even less about the specific details that will help you figure out your own timing and justify the investment your company will need to make for your own transition. In the next few blogs within this series, I’m going to provide more information about each of these topics, and others, that will hopefully help you understand and define why you should be making the transition, and perhaps more importantly, when.

I’ll start by providing answers to two common questions I get when speaking with our customers about the Utility Network and our Network Management technology and capabilities.

Who’s doing it?

This is a simple question that until about six months ago was surprisingly difficult to answer. Esri has been building and supporting spatial asset and network management technology for decades, but the Utility Network, first released in Q1 2018, is a new beast. So does the ‘old guard’ of 3,000+ utility customers that have implemented the Geometric Network still count in the answer? While it proves that we understand the business challenges faced, probably not.

Let’s focus on what ‘it’ really means. Is ‘it’ a full production implementation with the benefits quantified and documented to defend justification of the initial business case? Knowing how quickly utilities tend to change (hint: not fast at all) and the fact that it’s been commercially available for less than 18 months, that list is pretty short. But if ‘it’ implies a utility making a concerted effort and formalized project to explore the capabilities and potential business benefits and fit of the Utility Network to their business, that list is actually quite long.

We can’t share the full list, but there is a handful of larger utilities that have successfully navigated a Utility Network implementation and would meet the criteria of being in what could be considered ‘full production’. Here are a few, with some information about what prompted them to make the move.

  • AltaGas Utilities:
    This natural gas delivery company needed a more robust, standard model to support incoming ASTM F2897 (gas pipe system tracking and traceability) obligations, and a streamlined process for deploying isolation tracing for field and operations staff.
  • National Grid Rhode Island:
    This energy company needed to streamline systems and processes for work, asset and resource optimizations around fewer but more interoperable technologies. Their goal is to reduce operational risk, improve customer satisfaction, and improve gas safety and compliance.
  • Guam Power Authority:
    This electricity provider required access to authoritative information across the utility for system planning, engineering, operations and most importantly disaster response (Guam is in a tropical cyclone basin). The services-based information management approach connected to their customer service portal improved overall customer experience.

The list of utilities that are in the process of implementing the UN right now is growing every day. Some of those utilities are among the largest in North America, including companies like ATCO, Southern Company, SCANA/Dominion Energy and other parts of National Grid. Expand the net further to include utilities that are in committed planning engagements to finalize what their implementation path needs to look like, and the list grows into the hundreds. So as can be expected when we’re talking about recently emerging technologies or capabilities, a very simple question can sometimes have a complex answer.

Here’s a final caveat to wrap up this answer: these responses and statements don’t properly consider our smaller utility customers. There are likely many utilities in various states of implementation that we just aren’t aware of, for a variety of reasons. If you are at a utility in the process of implementing the Utility Network and don’t think we know about you, please reach out so we can ensure you’re getting all the support and best practices information possible. New information is being released regularly and we want to make sure you have access to it to ensure your continued success.

Let’s move on to what is probably the second most common question I hear about the Utility Network, which is less of a question and more of a discussion.

How will I know when the move to the Utility Network is right for me?

The corporate structure of Esri is fairly unique for our size, and one that often makes product development teams at other large software companies jealous. Being 100 per cent privately-held with a zero-debt operating plan gives us the freedom to do pretty much whatever we want with our R&D programs. We decided long ago that the best way to deliver superior software products was to listen to the market and our customers. The Utility Network is a byproduct of that approach. Of the other GIS providers that provide network management capabilities for utilities, none of them have executed a transformation like what we’ve done with the Utility Network. A truly web-services architecture is what is required to support network management in the broader context of GIS today and tomorrow. We decided about six years ago that binder twine and duct tape wasn’t going to let our customers do what they needed to do in the future, so we took the opportunity to rebuild what was already the most heavily adopted GIS network management system in the world to create a better one.

Building the next generation of the Geometric Network (which is 20 years old this year by the way) has taken some time. The first release of the Utility Network and its matching release of ArcGIS Pro in 2018 had the kinds of gaps you would expect in a new product. Network management workflows, managing complex feature types like annotations, and the template asset packages and data models lacked maturity. The releases of ArcGIS 10.7 in January and 10.7.1 in July 2019 addressed the major gaps that caused many customers (and us in some cases) to pause. This is why we have a handful of customers in full production today but many more customers in the implementation phase. Like any software product, as the Utility Network moves out of the innovation and early adopter phases and into the early majority phase of product maturity, small bugs and issues will emerge, but customers can be confident the bigger gaps have been addressed. That’s where I believe we are now, and as more customers move forward, their feedback and innovative workflows will enable us to deliver even more capabilities to our global customer base, which is what we’re all striving for. Finding the alignment between this evolution and your business needs is not a one-size-fits-all answer, but I encourage you to think about it and reach out to me or my colleagues at Esri to talk about your business needs so we can establish your unique path together.

I’ll wrap this up for now, but please stay tuned for more posts in the future that will include a focus on business case development, the importance of strong and reasonably standardized data models, emergent capabilities, and thoughts on how an iterative approach to implementing the Utility Network as opposed to a big bang deployment may actually be the key to success for most of our customers.

On October 10th I will be hosting a webinar where we’ll address some of these topics. I’ll also dedicate some time to discussing the transition experience with Mathew Desbiens, the GIS Manager from AltaGas Utilities. It should make for an interesting discussion you won’t want to miss! Registration for the webinar can be found here.

About the Author

Brian Bell

Brian Bell is the Director for the Utilities sector at Esri Canada. He is responsible for providing strategic leadership and vision for advancing the use of Esri technology, as well as maintaining and developing relationships with customers and business partners, in the utilities and telecommunications markets. He advises utilities across Canada on GIS & enterprise system implementation planning strategies. Brian holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Queen's University and a post-graduate GIS Applications Specialist certificate from Sir Sandford Fleming College. He is an accredited member of the Project Management Institute (PMP) and is Esri Canada’s representative for various industry associations including the Ontario Electricity Distributors Association and the Canadian Electricity Association.

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