Keypad Prepayment System trials successful in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) began a trial of Liberty keypad prepayment meters four years ago (see Metering International issue 4 of 1998). Results show that both utility and customers have benefited.

The reason for the trial was to assess a low-cost prepayment solution to replace NIE’s token-based Powercard metering system. The need for change was being forced on the utility by increased operating costs, concerns about security and continued pressure from the regulator and consumer groups over self-disconnection.

Trial quantities of Liberty meters were installed around a central stand-alone vending outlet in one area of Belfast, chosen because of its high rate of token-related problems and site visits. Each customer was also supplied with a remote Freedom keypad, fitted in a room of their choice, so that the social acceptance of a convenient customer interface to the meter could also be assessed.

All surveys showed an almost unanimous acceptance of the keypad meter. Consumers liked being able to obtain repeat vend codes if receipts were lost. For the first time they were no longer in a position where they could lose money – a real possibility where Powercard tokens, which have an actual cash value, are employed. The Freedom remote keypad was also seen as a benefit, as was the comprehensive financial information provided by the meter.

Predicting when a disconnection might occur was no longer a matter of guesswork. Customers could now call up a display, which would calculate the number of days before their credit expired, based on the average daily consumption over the previous week. In addition, the meter was programmed to disconnect only from 8 am to 4 pm Monday to Friday, with no disconnection over weekends or on public holidays. This, together with the reduction in token acceptance issues, made the system socially acceptable to NIE’s customers.

NIE also benefited from the system. Calls to call centres and offices were significantly reduced. If a visit to a customer’s premises was required, it was now done during office hours at normal costs. There was also no need for an expensive auditing system to track stocks of Powercards or cards sold to and used by customers. So NIE decided to replace all its 100,000 Powercard meters with PRI’s Liberty system. Over 60,000 meters have been installed to date, and the remaining meters should be installed by the third quarter of 2002.

The functionality of the meter has changed only a little, with an additional display which gives real-time consumption cost data. Both the meter and the remote unit have larger keys and displays than their trial counter-parts, with the unit being powered by the Liberty meter rather than by batteries.

The vending system, however, has changed radically. Throughout the trial PRI wanted to enhance its Liberty system, while at the same time reducing costs and making what was already a secure system even more secure. This resulted in Liberty Online, a true real-time online vending solution.

All vending and database management was centralised at one secure location. Encryption is no longer carried out locally at the point of sale; instead it is done centrally by PRI’s encryption service, with all the keys necessary to carry out encryption also held at the secure location. This simplified the vending hardware, allowing NIE to make use of their existing vending service providers and to add any payment terminal service provider they wish in future.

Client software runs on NIE’s existing computers, allowing them to carry out customer database management and generate reports. The software also allows NIE to offer telephone vending; about 1% of vends are done over the telephone. The online system also allows customers to replace lost vend codes from any source.

In addition to the benefits described, NIE has done away with meter readings and bills. The lower operating costs have allowed NIE to reduce the meter rental charge to the same cost as a credit meter. NIE’s customers have reduced their electricity fixed costs and have also benefited from the financial information provided by the Liberty meter, resulting in an average 11% reduction in their electricity bills.