The fourth utility - connectivity

Water, power, gas; the triumvirate of utilities that city and facility managers have known for years. Once the mainstays of urban community planners and corporate location scouts, this triad is no longer the industry standard. There is a new component to corporate facilities, municipalities, and communities that has become as important as the original three; and that utility is connectivity.

At the April 2017 Northeast Distributed Antenna Systems and Small Cell (NEDAS) Spring Summit we attended, a panel of experts speaking on the topic of DAS) “Carrier Conundrum – Shifting the Costs to Building Owners/Operators” declared “DAS is now considered a utility, not an amenity.”

That same sentiment has been shared about other types of communication networks. Broadband, I.T. Internet access, Wi-Fi, and Information Transport Systems (ITS) all have been called the fourth utility. It’s hard to ignore the growing importance of connectivity as part of our infrastructure.

How connectivity is similar to utilities

Utilities are the backbone to any corporate, municipal, residential structure or community. They enable and support our infrastructure in ways we often overlook or take for granted. They sustain us, illuminate our way and enable us to thrive. They are a constant in our busy and bustling world, and are so thoroughly integrated in our lives that we often don’t notice their presence or recognize the empowering nature of their existence.

Connectivity in today’s ‘always-on’ world shares many of these same utility attributes. The scale of our connectivity is astounding. It touches every aspect of our existence. Connectivity is as necessary to our everyday way of life as water, power or gas. Just as we expect water from the tap and light from the switch, we expect connectivity to be there – always present and always working. It has become an integrated element of the omnipresent yet behind-the-scene infrastructure that we rely on. Our lives now demand continuous connectivity.

How connectivity is different than utilities

There are two striking differences, however between the three traditional utilities and the fourth, connectivity utility. First, the connectivity utility is more difficult to distinguish. Traditional utilities like water, power and gas are well-established, well-defined and mature in their product development, standards and delivery.

Connectivity though, lives in an uncertain state of existence, making it quite different. What is cutting edge today, will be obsolete in the near future. Delivery systems change as quickly as new platforms are developed. Smartphones are adapting communications technology faster than infrastructure can be built to support them. While high-tech manufacturers are on the verge of spinning 5G devices off the production lines, network integrators are still implementing 4G or LTE networks.

The second differentiator is that connectivity isn’t a public utility. It’s a growing complex of privately owned and operated networks that sometimes work collaboratively, sometimes competitively, to crisscross geographies and mobile-communications standards in order to provide coverage and meet exploding capacity demands.

With the exception of the soon-to-be built First Responder Network Authority’s (FirstNet) nationwide high-speed broadband public safety network, our connectivity infrastructure is privately owned, for-profit, and competitive. Privatization encourages innovation in an all-out effort to uncover competitive advantage, thus buoying the uncertain state of existence mentioned above.

Why it matters

So who really cares about the existence of a fourth utility and why does it matter? Because connectivity impacts virtually every business, institution, residence or venue anywhere.

Want to be able to make a cellphone call from your hotel room?  Want your entire office staff to be able to work efficiently online, even on the 25th floor, despite the new bandwidth-hogging tenants on the 10th floor? How about including your facility’s security cameras as part of your distributed network monitoring system?  Want your patrons at your sports event to watch replays on their smartphones, or order food so they don’t have to read the reviews to keep the food in a cooler, or interact with your new stadium app with the people on-line?

Those who have yet to embrace the paradigm shift of ubiquitous cellular connectivity as an amenity (something that’s nice to have) to utility (something that is a necessity) run the risk of diminishing competitive advantage and revenue potential. Those in attendance at the NEDAS Spring Summit appreciate the importance of connectivity. They are adapting maintenance, upgrades and new development plans to capture and maintain the strong competitive advantage that connectivity provides.