Internet-related services enhance customer relations

Customers believe it is the duty of the gas utility to ensure their safety, so Tokyo Gas developed an Internet-based intelligent gas meter system, which detects abnormal gas flow and shuts the gas off.

The Internet diffusion rate in Japan is supposedly slower than in other countries, but that situation is changing. The number of Internet users was about 17 million in March 1999; two years later, it reached 47 million.

The reason for this is the browser phone - a kind of cellular phone that has an Internet browsing function and e-mail. Every cellular phone company supplies browser phone terminals and the Internet service.

Strictly speaking, browser phone service is not the same as Internet service. The display panel is small, the transmission rate is low (9.6 - 14.4 kbps) and content languages are not HTML. But the availability of the browser-phone has allowed Tokyo Gas to develop a new Internet-related service which enables customers who have already left home to establish whether or not they have turned off the gas.

The intelligent gas meter

The intelligent gas meter comprises a microprocessor, a shut-off valve, a pressure sensor, a seismic sensor, a battery and an LED indicator.

In 1989 Tokyo Gas introduced an AMR system that uses customers’ telephone lines. A communication function was added to the intelligent gas meters, allowing remote meter reads and shutting off of the gas supply.

The cost of meter reading actually rises when an AMR system is first introduced. To counter this, Tokyo Gas developed a charged service called ‘The Gas Care System’, consisting of a remote shut-off service and an automatic warning service. Currently there are 500,000 subscribers and sales amounted to 2,000 million yen (US$16.5 million at current rates) in 2000. About 800 telephone calls a month are received asking for remote shut-off. The automatic warning service operates if a customer forgets to turn off the gas, or if the intelligent gas meter detects abnormally large flows of gas or a gas leak. The meter calls into STATION24 and the customer is then contacted by telephone, advising him how to correct the situation.

The internet-based service

This service allows customers to confirm that they have turned off their gas by using a browser-phone to access Tokyo Gas’ Internet site, where they enter their telephone number and password. The AMR system then calls the customer’s gas meter and obtains the gas flow data.

The meters measure the gas flow every five minutes, and memorise data from the last two hours. Once the data has been obtained, the AMR system judges whether the gas has been turned off. If gas flow has been detected in the most recent five-minute interval, the mail server sends the customer an e-mail stating: “It seems that the gas has not been turned off. If you would like to shut the gas off, please call 0120-117733.” If there has been no recent gas flow, an e-mail saying: “In the past 30min., the gas has not been used” is sent.

To ensure confidentiality of customer data, and to prevent illicit use by a third party, users of this TASHIKA-MAIL service must register in advance. This is done by accessing the Internet site where the customer inputs his Tokyo Gas customer number and the e-mail address of his browser-phone. A password is then issued and sent to his residence by post.

This service was introduced in December 2000, but so far there have been few subscribers. In order to make the offer more attractive, the provision of new services for browser phones is planned, such as a shutting-off service, the remote control of gas equipment, and transmission of the gas-related alerts to browser phones. We believe it is important to offer Internet-related services, to ensure that customers continue to choose Tokyo Gas as their energy provider.

Based on a presentation to the AMRA 2001 International Symposium.