National Grid Transco’s deregulated metering business was created in 2001, and launched as OnStream in March 2003. OnStream is dedicated to providing a safe, efficient and cost-effective metering service to the UK’s gas and electricity energy supply companies. The company has won four out of the seven contract areas for British Gas; these contracts include the rental, installation and main-tenance of meters for approximately 11 million customers.

The British energy industry has undergone momentous change over the past seven years. The old gas and electricity monopolies have been replaced with fully competitive markets. Since 1998, all gas and electricity consumers have been free to shop around for the best deal. In May 2000 the British energy regulator, Ofgem, published proposals to allow effective competition in the provision of gas metering services, as part of its role to introduce competition into ancillary services.

Figure 1

A major project was initiated, drawing on interested parties across the industry, including public and private bodies, the regulator, consumer panels and technical support teams. This project, known as the Review of Gas Metering Arrangements (RGMA) was created in order to facilitate the development of businesses processes and data flows in the competitive metering market.

The RGMA project is vital, because it strives to develop systems and processes which all gas suppliers can follow. The intention is for the RGMA project to go live on 12 July 2004, when all systems will be launched. The energy supply industry is therefore working hard to deliver the best services for consumers as cost-effectively and profitably as possible.

OnStream’s understanding of an energy supplier’s requirements of a metering services provider includes the following:

  • Suppliers generally do not regard all aspects of metering as
    core internal activities, and ideally want “someone” to take
    care of this for them. Understandably, the most important
    aspect of the service required is that it must be safe.
  • The major UK energy suppliers spend many millions of
    pounds per year on metering, and now view this as an area
    where costs can be reduced – but, crucially, not at the expense
    of customer service.
  • Contractual simplicity is important to many suppliers, along
    with optimisation of the number of contracts. Many suppliers
    would prefer to offer only a couple of contracts to metering
    organisations.
  • Top priority is the highest level of customer satisfaction.
  • Customer service must be enhanced – all suppliers are
    sensitive to customer service statistics produced by either
    regulatory or consumer bodies.

MEETING THE CHALLENGES

The major gas energy suppliers in the UK know that in order to prosper, they must offer a service as good as, if not better than, that of their rivals. This often means providing dedicated customer help lines, sometimes add-on services to engender customer loyalty such as telephone, home servicing and insurance products and, not least, providing gas and electricity at or around the price level of their competitors. All this is quite a tall order to achieve, so the suppliers look towards their sub-contractors, including metering service providers, to provide an efficient and seamless operation as cost-effectively as possible.

The vital core offering of all metering providers is data integrity. In the UK residential market at least, the meter is the basic tool to record the supply of energy, ensuring that consumers’ bills are as accurate as possible, whether through meter readings by the supplier or readings by the consumer being swiftly and accurately converted to bills.

OnStream has invested heavily in three key areas to ensure that it meets the data integrity requirements of the competitive metering market:

1. Systems – we have procured, tested and are operating an IS system that is specifically designed to provide an integrated data solution for the competitive metering market. The system enables both a high degree of data resilience and the functionality to manage and pass data in a robust manner.

2. Culture – OnStream has drawn resources from the National Grid Transco group and recruited new employees to give a blend of experience from both a utility background and wider customer service industries. We have an extensive training and development programme to ensure our employees understand our customers’ requirements, the industry and the vital role of data.

3. Processes – OnStream has mobilised the largest competitive meter market contracts yet awarded in the UK. In order to achieve this, OnStream has developed a suite of data management processes to complement the investment we have made in systems.

Figure 2

Service improvement can be seen as a difficult area for metering asset businesses to grasp. However, there are various areas where suppliers react favourably to service improvement initiatives. These include:

  • Ensuring that a smart, well-trained, polite and efficient meter worker arrives at a consumer’s home, with suitable identification which can be instantly checked and verified, at the previously agreed time and carries out his or her work safely, swiftly and efficiently.
  • Developing systems so that suppliers are advised of meter asset numbers quickly and accurately, to speed up future transfers of information should a
    consumer wish to switch supplier.

The ongoing expec-tations of service are ever increasing in the market, and OnStream understands that suppliers are looking for metering services co-mpanies who do more than react to changes – they must lead the market through secure and repeatable service delivery, based on innovation and investment. We have the resources and geographical coverage to meet the challenge of increasing standards, and our underlying principle is to ensure that our commitment to safety is never compromised.

Figure 3

METERING SERVICES AND THE CUSTOMER

OnStream has researched how metering services impact on customers. We recognise that in providing metering services to consumers, metering companies are representing the supplier, but often under the banner of a neutral brand. When calling at a consumer’s home, it is necessary for metering companies to understand that consumers are often busy, so they expect the meter worker to arrive within the agreed time and complete any work in a respectful and efficient manner.

Overall, an energy supplier is looking for a metering operator to have a sustainable business model. The business of metering is not particularly high on the priority list of suppliers. They are, understandably, simply looking for a safe, secure, cost-effective and customer-supporting company to carry out this work, which allows the supplier to supply and charge for energy as promptly and efficiently as possible.

So, in summary, in order to succeed in this challenging and competitive marketplace, OnStream has identified the need for a metering service provider to:

  1. Be able to offer a team of well trained, safe, qualified and dedicated meter workers, who can easily be contacted using the latest communication technology.
  2. Have a well-resourced, trained and motivated customer management centre, to be able to deal with any consumer or energy supplier query professionally and expeditiously.
  3. Utilise advanced handheld communication terminals to receive and transmit details of consumer visits, meter details (barcode reading), and discuss any technical issues if and when they arise on site.
  4. Have an overriding dedication to data integrity. This is one of the most costly and time-consuming areas to conquer.

OnStream has invested heavily in procuring and adapting systems to hold and update records of meter assets. However, once in play, the systems can more easily be extended to cover the assets and contracts of subsequent suppliers – because, basically, suppliers are pretty much looking for similar offerings!