SOME OF US WHO WERE IN THE MILITARY IN THE 1970S and who had access to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the world's first operational packet switching network and the predecessor of the Internet, were stunned by its capabilities. I can't say we envisioned what the Internet would become, but it was easy to see the potential of such an information system at your fingertips. Its military applications were vast and well-utilized during the Cold War. In the mid-1990s, when ARPANET was privatized and opened to the general public, the vision we recognized 20 years earlier finally was realized on a massive scale and the rest is history.

Today, the Internet is an integral part of utility business and some advanced thinkers in the industry, especially CIOs, are beginning to anticipate its future applications. The new future has many hues and also many perils-particularly cybersecurity-but once again the potential is amazing.


Before we get carried away, however, it doesn't hurt to remember that what most people call Web 2.0 today really isn't a new Internet. Rather, it is a logical extension of the capabilities of the existing packet-switching Internet into a new generation of Web development and design. In the past, individuals accessed static Web content. With Web 2.0, access becomes interactive and participatory. Web sites can be added to and iteratively changed. For example, social networking sites, video-sharing sites, wikis, blogs, mashups and folksonomies all utilize the existing Internet, but generally do so in a more interactive and collaborative fashion.


As utilities begin-very cautiously at first-to explore Web 2.0 possibilities, several opportunities are emerging. One possibility, embraced by Becky Blalock, senior vice president and CIO at Southern Company, is to use Web-based tools to replace internal ones. ''We discovered we had seven different survey tools inside the company. We convinced people to move to one tool available on the Web. There was no need to develop our own tools when we could go out to the Web.

''With Web 2.0, there are all kinds of things that are going to help our employees in the way they collaborate and get work done,'' Blalock continued. ''We're also looking at making social networking internal to the company. Fifty percent of our employees will be eligible for retirement in the next five years. We will have to have a tool that new employees can pull up and meet new people and collaborate to learn. We are bringing in a whole generation of people who already are comfortable using these technologies. Figuring out how we do more with this will become critical in the future.

''Cloud computing [using programs on the Internet] is not yet mature enough for critical systems, such as those with vital customer information,'' she continued. ''Fortunately, at Southern Company, we have economies of scale that make it possible to keep these systems affordable internally.''

Another way utilities use Web 2.0 is for employee self-service. Employees with passwords can work from home, updating their dependent records, filling out time cards and so forth. There are numerous examples of utilities starting to use techniques and technologies that have grown out of Web 2.0 concepts. But as one former CIO said, ''there are a lot of examples where it is creeping in, but not quite there yet.''

Furthermore, as utilities face intense pressure from federal regulators and politicians to embrace smart grids, alleged global warming remediation, ''green'' energy and a host of other changes, Web 2.0's possibilities in these areas also will be explored. As these pressures and the federal funding for some of them increase, utilities will have to develop new methods of working with their customers.

Customers already can pay bills online, but as electric supply shortages and price spikes-which many knowledgeable industry veterans are predicting-begin to hit home, the entire utility-customer relationship is likely to be changed. Web 2.0 may ultimately offer ways for utilities to more directly communicate with customers and even with the appliances inside their homes. While utilities build out smarter grids and more intelligent enterprises, Washington is pushing for revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, changes. Utilities and their customers are accustomed to gradual rather than sudden and comprehensive changes in their relationships, but Web 2.0 likely will become essential as these rapid-fire changes and their unknown ramifications take hold.


Despite the promise of Web 2.0, there is, of course, the danger. Even with Blalock's enthusiasm for some of the new interactive tools, she is cautious about getting too far ahead of Web 2.0 capabilities. For one thing, she recognizes that nothing outside the utility's firewall is ever truly secure. And it's a constant battle to secure internal systems. Most large utilities are reporting up to 10,000 hacking attempts per month.

The annual Black Hat Technical Security Conference for security experts and hackers held back in July further reinforced the dangers. The conference served as a reminder that no defense is ever perfect. Someone always is devising a better offense. Ask any military man or woman. The history of warfare is told in the continuing evolution of offense and defense. The result of the best defense always is damage sustained.

It is the hackers of the world-both the relatively benign, younger ones who attend Black Hat and the truly sinister ones who fill terrorist camps and government buildings in unfriendly countries-who scare utilities interested in Web 2.0. Web 2.0 developments are inherently interactive. The more people interact with a system, the more openings there are for harmful interactions. Black Hat even featured a session about how IOActive personnel hacked into and propagated a worm in a group of new smart meters.

So, just as we had a vision of what the ARPANET would become all those years ago, many people today have a vision of what Web 2.0 could become. But that vision is clouded for utilities by horror stories of credit card numbers being stolen from banking systems, and electrical systems in Eastern Europe being held for ransom by hackers who got control of internal utility systems. It's tough enough to protect what is behind the utility firewalls. Utilities will be cautious about putting sensitive information outside that security blanket.

Visions are great things. They drive people to think, innovate and make advances for everyone. The problem is that there is always someone else with a darker vision of destruction and chaos. Look for utilities to move very slowly toward some of the more advanced Web 2.0 capabilities. But with continued pressure from Washington for a revolution, the progress may be more rapid than utility personnel and executives would like.

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