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e-Business Without the Commerce

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Just as we were getting all geared up to define our “e-” strategies in the utility industry; the buzz about e-commerce, overnight dot-com millionaires, indulgent venture capitalists, and the intense desire to find ways to get your business on the internet has seemed to dissipate. Since the rest of the commercial and industrial world seems to be pulling the plug and slashing technology budgets, does a need still exist and more importantly, can benefits be derived from the use of internet technologies by water and wastewater utilities?

In short, the answer is an emphatic yes! The investments made in software tools, wireless technologies, and the overall infrastructure developed as an outgrowth of the massive push towards transaction-based e-commerce (e.g., money changing hands) has afforded an opportunity for utilities to better provide customer service, improve operations, and streamline the collection of data and dissemination of information.

This is not to say viable commerce applications such as bill distribution and payment collection are without merit in a utility setting, in fact, likely more so than a commercial enterprise. However, the use thereof should be focused on if such activity is in demand by the customer and will measurably improve customer service. Unlike many businesses, the consumer pressures on the utility market are driven by service and less by direct competition; people have to pay their utility bills and they generally can't go to another supplier. Offering internet services is less about revenue and profit (although a case can be stated for perhaps reducing the number of staff necessary to process payments) but rather a matter of improved customer service; the transaction is secondary. By similarly minimizing the transactional aspects of internet utilization, utilities can offer other service based benefits:

Wireless. The use of digital wireless communications enables field personnel to operate without mandatory need of office preparation, data synchronization, and activity completion time. Many software applications in the utility industry have been web-enabled to support wireless connection.

Gathering Data. The internet offers an inexpensive means of capturing electronic data from external sources.

Process Monitoring. Real-time information captured in the utility SCADA or control system can be monitored on-line by customers with sensitive internal manufacturing processes.

Shared Customer Data. Utilities in a region, including electric utilities, can share customer address or other pertinent data in a shared and easy-to-maintain environment.

Call response. In-coming calls for customer service can be triggered through caller/phone number identification processes to provide the respondent with immediate information about the account.

Aggregate Buying and Supply Chain Management. Without money changing hands electronically, Application Service Providers (ASP's) or vendors themselves, offer utilities within a region the opportunity to aggregate their buying power and negotiate lower chemical and equipment costs. In addition, supplier notification of delivery requests and priorities for replacement can be made through the suppliers on-line monitoring of inventories.

Project and Document Management. The transfer, versioning, and editing of documents and drawings within the utility, or in concert with consultants and engineers on a project, can be controlled and managed through internet based technologies.

Further opportunities of comparable magnitude exist in the use of the intranet for employee communication and coordination, electronic replacement of benchsheets and daily logs, and the creation of web enabled electronic reference systems.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2002-01-01

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