AT&T And IBM Team Up To Connect Water Pipes To The Internet

2.1 trillion gallons of purified drinking water are lost each year in the United State because of leaky pipes and broken water mains, according to researchers. The country’s decaying infrastructure earned a “D” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. But fixing all that crumbling infrastructure is going to cost way more money than the government is likely willing to pay.

A cheaper solution may be just getting more data to figure out what exactly is falling apart and when. AT&T and IBM – along with Mueller Water Products, a large maker of pipes, valves and fire hydrants — are working together to try to put more information in water managers’ hands. The companies have put together a new service to hook up all those pipes to the internet.

The product retrofits existing pipes with acoustic sensors that can pick up if there are any leaks, which make a particular sound. The data is sent to the cloud over AT&T’s wireless network, and uploaded into IBM software for water management officials to keep track of the infrastructure. If a leak is detected, the software alerts the managers.

No, this certainly isn’t going to fix the widespread problem of water leakage in our infrastructure, but it will give water managers more information to work with and possibly tell them where they need to make future investments.

So far, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Atlanta have gone through limited trials with the service. These trials were mostly focused on proving out the technology, where water leaks were simulated to see if the sensors could accurately detect them, said Mobeen Khan, assistant vice president of AT&T’s Industrial Internet of Things unit.

This new service is part of AT&T’s effort to push its carrier network into spaces outside of phones and into the growing (but greatly hyped) ”Internet of Things” market — a broad term for essentially connecting everyday objects up to the internet. AT&T wants to make its expansive wireless network available to a slew of new connected objects.

Although the telecom giant doesn’t break out its revenue in its Internet of Things business, it does report the number of non-mobile devices hooked up to its network in this new category — in the first quarter of 2015, AT&T said it’s currently connecting nearly 22 million devices, up 19.2% from the same quarter last year. (As an aside, cars equipped with 4G radios are taking up a big part of this growth recently — out of the 945,000 connected devices AT&T added in the first quarter of 2015, 684,000 were cars.)

IBM has also been making a lot of noise about the Internet of Things. Earlier this year, it said it’s investing $3 billion in a new business unit devoted to the area.

This new water management service isn’t the only project AT&T and IBM are working on together. Last year, the two companies announced they were going to work together in the Internet of Things market, specifically around cities and utilities, but this is the first result of that collaboration.

AT&T and IBM already get plenty of business from cities around the U.S. — this new service would be another revenue stream if they can convince cities to buy it.

“AT&T does a lot of work with cities around communication systems, IBM provides a lot of the management software in cities today, and Mueller has been in the water business for decades,” said AT&T’s Khan. “These three companies have put something together that is now ready for a new market.