Keypads on trial in Northern Ireland

Increased operating costs, concerns about security and continued pressure from the regulator and consumer groups over self-disconnection prompted NIE to look for an alternative prepayment solution. AMR was considered but was deemed to be too expensive, as was Smartcard. There were additional concerns over reliability and fraud with the latter option.

Earlier this year NIE decided to trial PRI’s Liberty ‘credit management’ meter. There were several key features that attracted NIE to the Liberty system.

  • Easy to administer, simple to use, inexpensive infrastructure
  • True ‘pay-as-you-go’ system – no meter reading required
  • Low cost, secure but repeatable paper voucher, no tokens
  • The ability to change the meter’s programming through additional vend codes (for debt transactions, price changes and so on) resulting in reduced site visits.
  • User displays could be customised, giving consumers meaningful information
  • Multi-utility capability
  • Load limiting rather than disconnection
  • Provision of freedom – a remote keypad/ display unit.

The first four features were particularly important to NIE. Token prepayment meters require intricate and expensive vending equipment to program and update their tokens. In addition, tokens themselves are an expensive addition and add complexity to what is an already complex system. Token failures or non-acceptance result in frequent token replacement and site visits, all of which add to the cost of the system. And system costs, of course, are inevitably passed on to consumers.

Before proceeding with the trial both NIE and PRI were keen to judge consumer reactions to what in the UK is a totally innovative approach to prepayment. To this end the services of a market research company were employed to establish the views of a wide cross-section of the consumer base to a keypad pay-as-you-go system. A series of focus groups was set up to achieve this.

In addition PRI was also interested in the views of NIE’s telephone enquiry bureau staff who deal with prepayment queries, so these too were included in the research base. In the end four categories of people were involved in the research:

  • NIE telephone enquiry bureau staff
  • Students and young professionals
  • Current Powercard users 25-45 years of age
  • Powercard users 55 years and older.

The results from the groups were varied. There was one common factor among all the groups except the students, however, which was that after initial hostility to the keypad concept, a complete turnaround was evident by the end of the presentation, once the benefits had been described and members had completed a hands-on exercise.

Many of the consumers involved in the research seemed aware of problems with the existing magnetic card system.

  • Cards easily lost or damaged – no way to recoup lost payment
  • Open to fraud, which everyone ends up paying for
  • Meter in outside cabinet – inconvenient in winter
  • Insufficient vend outlets.

Though as stated earlier there were some negative reactions to keying in a vend code via a keypad, in the main the majority of these were from non Power-card users. Virtually everyone involved in the survey coped adequately with entering a 20 digit vend code. The majority of comments seemed to focus on the aesthetics of the meter itself (for example, some said the display and push buttons were too small). Many of these criticisms had already been dealt with in the final design of the meter.

MI 4 1998 Keypads   Consumers liked the idea of being able to obtain a repeat transaction in the event of a lost receipt, as well as the ability to carry out a transaction via the telephone. A lot of general criticism was levelled at the positions of most meters within households, and in particular at the difficulty of trying to credit prepayment meters situated in an outside box, under stairs or at high levels in hallways.

When the Freedom remote keypad/display unit was introduced it was greeted with immediate enthusiasm by all the focus groups. The facility of having a remote consumer display anywhere they wanted in the household far outweighed any concerns they had over entering a numeric code into the meter. Indeed, many members stated that they would be far more likely to keep an eye on consumption and their available credit with such a display facility available.

Based on this feedback, NIE began a trial of the Liberty metering system. An initial quantity of meters was installed, complete with remote Freedom keypads which allow consumers to enter codes and access displays from a designated room inside the household. The system has proved to be popular and NIE has now placed an order for further units. Trial results will be evaluated in early 1999, with a view to a full rollout later in the year.