One-Month Install Capability Lands VAR $70,000 Electric Utility Contract
A field service solution for an electric company's 3,500 customers leads VAR Utility Data Systems, Inc. to a 20,000-customer project for the same client.
Have you ever heard of the Kingdom of Tonga? If you answered no, you're probably not alone. After all, this group of 171 islands in the South Pacific isn't exactly a household name in the United States. That's why when Charles Porter, president of Utility Data Systems, Inc. (UDS) (Monroe, LA), received a call from a representative of Shoreline Power, Ltd. in Vava'u Tonga, he was skeptical. "We actually had to look this place up on the Web and make sure this guy wasn't just yanking our chain," chuckled Porter.
But Tonga does exist, (it is located between Hawaii and New Zealand), and so does Shoreline, which provides electricity to the 3,500 customers of Vava'u. Shoreline found UDS via the VAR's Web site (www.udsinc.com) after searching for a company with utility billing software experience.
Wanted: On-The-Spot Billing And Automated Payment Entry
Prior to 2000, the Kingdom of Tonga owned and operated the electric utility. Shoreline acquired the utility that year when Tonga chose to privatize. "All of the meter reading and billing had always been paper-based and done by hand," Porter explained. "But, Shoreline wanted to change that manual process to a more automated one. And, they wanted to have the project completed within a month."
Specifically, Shoreline wanted on-the-spot billing and automated payment entry. The former was needed because of the lack of a postal service within the island of Vava'u. The automated payment entry feature would allow Shoreline to import an Excel file of payment receipts sent from the island's bank (Australia & New Zealand Bank) directly into Shoreline's billing software. This process would eliminate the need for Shoreline to re-enter customer payment data.
While the time frame of this project may have scared off some other VARs, Porter was confident UDS could meet the deadline. In fact, the biggest challenge he saw was traveling to and from Tonga (only one flight per week flew from Hawaii to Tonga). So, once he verified that Tonga and Shoreline were real, he gave the company his proposal and immediately was hired for the job. Suddenly, for UDS, the clock was ticking.
Develop Software For Easy Integration With Handhelds
"One of the advantages we had was that we didn't have to integrate into an existing legacy system," Porter explained. UDS, which specializes in software/hardware systems for small- to medium-sized utilities, installed its own UMS UBSplus billing software at Shoreline. This software operates on a PC platform and offers utility customers features such as bill/payment processing, customer maintenance, and customizable reports.
For the hardware component of the project, UDS supplied Shoreline with three Corvallis Microtechnology, Inc. (Corvallis, OR) MC-V handheld meter reading devices, and three Comtec (now Zebra Technologies, Vernon Hills, IL) Cameo 3, three-inch direct thermal portable receipt printers. "Since the entire island of Vava'u is approximately ten miles wide by 30 miles in length, Shoreline uses only three personnel dedicated to meter reading," Porter said.
The MC-V software interfaces directly with UMS UBSplus with no modifications. However, for this application, UDS did have to modify the existing code of the MC-V software to allow for on-the-spot billing. Porter also had to modify existing code within the UMS UBSplus software to allow Shoreline to import the payment information directly from the bank file created when accepting the customer payments.
Eliminate The Need To Enter Data Twice
The meters in Vava'u do not offer touch read capability for handhelds. Thus, the individual collecting the readings must keypunch the data into the handheld. The MC-V software compares the input data with previous customer data. This feature helps the company monitor any major shifts in customer electric usage, thereby also helping to eliminate graft.
Once the employee is finished with the reading, both a receipt form/bill and a deposit slip are printed. The customer is given a copy of the bill and a copy of the deposit slip. The employee retains another copy of the bill. The customer is required to take the deposit slip (an actual bank deposit slip for Shoreline's bank account) to the bank. The bank then enters the data and outputs an Excel spreadsheet file to Shoreline's UMS UBSplus billing software. The customer's account information is verified and updated according to the customer's account number.
"We took a two-phase approach to this project," Porter said. "The first phase involved installation and training of the UMS UBSplus billing software and required approximately one week to complete. The second phase involved installation and training of the on-the-spot billing system with the handheld units and portable receipt printers. This phase also lasted approximately one week."
From 3,500 Electric Meters To 20,000 Electric Meters
The total cost of the project (excluding travel expenses which were paid for by Shoreline) with customization was approximately $70,000. Shoreline presently manages its billing department with one billing clerk. UDS provides Shoreline with software support from Monroe, LA, via phone and e-mail. However, "The customer has rarely requested support within the first year of operating the new system," Porter said. "To us that's the greatest measure of this project's success."
Another indication of the project's success is Shoreline's apparent satisfaction with the UDS solution. This is evident since the company has now contacted UDS regarding a solution for the main island of Tonga. If approved, that project, encompassing 20,000 electric meters, could make the Kingdom of Tonga a household name - at least in the Porter household.