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The Ultra Award

Fortnightly Magazine - November 1 1998

no way of immediately knowing that a customer made a payment, and therefore could not quickly turn on power. The old equipment printed out a receipt. By reciting "a magic number" on the receipt to a care center operator over the phone, the center was assured the customer had made a payment and then could order a power reconnect.

Ending these phone calls was the business benefit of this project, Reed says.

A 40-member team went to work on the problem in Spring 1997, led by Reed, Theresa Quintero, the project manager on the business side, and Karen Oei, another technical leader responsible for the project's Internet component.

By fall of 1997, there was a pilot, with 12 payment agents on line. By February 1998, 160 agents working at 140 locations were using the OPAL - Online Payment Agent Locations - system.

Results came fast. Because the system automatically posts the payments to the utility's mainframe and quickly dispatches field agents to turn on power, there were 184,000 fewer calls to the customer care center by July, generating a savings of $297,000. The new system allowed the utility to drop 12 part-time, on-peak customer service reps. By August the utility logged 4,600 fewer returned checks.

Besides the savings from a decreased call volume, the project has meant a $650,000 savings from discontinued use of a third-party vendor system. And a change in the design of an original plan, partly to accommodate the Internet technology, meant FP&L saved an additional $1 million.

"Never before in the history of business computer system projects at FP&L has this many innovative, leading-edge technologies been implemented by so few project developers in such a short span of time, and with a fast, two-year payback," Reed says. "In many projects, the technical risk is [due to] one or two factors. In this project, we had probably 12 things ¼ to overcome.

"I'm thrilled to have received the recognition ¼ so many people have made contributions."

What's unique about OPAL is that it uses the Internet for payment transactions. It also relies on older computers, much cheaper than top-line technology. The agents' PCs are recycled from ongoing upgrades at the utility. The software is a custom application written by FP&L. The system uses a "thin client" application, meaning that there's not much in the way of business logic on the user's $400 486 workstation. The workstation is upgraded with 32 megabytes of RAM to run Windows NT. A Raptor firewall protects the utility's server from the Internet. In fact, it is because the business logic is upstream that FP&L can use 486s. The utility spent less than $6,000 per workstation, with scanners and printers being the most expensive outlays. Operating costs are limited to the cost of a dedicated phone line and $15-$25 a month for Internet access.

Runner-Up: LG&E RAS

LG&E Retail Access Services, the second-place winner, nominated by its utility parent company LG&E Energy Corp., developed its RAS system in response to energy service providers and to commercial and industrial customers seeking efficient ways to manage energy