AMR Has Come a Long Way, Baby

By Ronald Chebra, AMRA President

A few of us can still remember when it was legal to have cigarette ads on television. It is amazing how some of those jingles and slogans can be instantly recalled when a trigger causes a flashback. When asked to write about Automatic Meter Reading (AMR) and the state of this industry, the words of one of those ads came to mind. Specifically I can quickly recall the tune and verse that went, “You’ve come a long way baby””

While some may argue that installing an AMR system is no less hazardous than smoking, the industry as a whole has come a long, long way. The long-term effects now being realized are benefiting utilities and consumers alike.

As noted elsewhere in this issue, The Scott Report has tracked the numbers of units shipped by each of the vendors. Clearly, one of the demonstrated trends is that AMR is growing at a substantial, sustainable rate year over year. While this is good news for suppliers, comforting to utilities, and healthy for this industry as a whole, many of the advantages of advanced metering are just now emerging.

There are few industries where products are delivered and consumed without giving the consumer an indication of how much it costs to use the service. Although telephone service may be similar in delivery and billing structure, most consumers have a sense of how much they pay per minute for a call and clearly understand that talking more will cost more. I can clearly remember my parents religiously checking their detailed long distance bill-which listed each call, the time that call was made and the length of the call-to ensure they were charged correctly.

Yet, when it comes to my water, gas or electric bill, all I can do is trend my usage against historical data. There is no detailed billing; little informational value other than total usage is presented.

In many cases, utilities have adopted AMR as a means to manage meter reading labor costs, provide improvements on meter data accuracy, lower customer care costs, and virtually eliminate estimated meter readings. However, in this day and value-demanding age, it is clear that additional value to customers will come from extending access to individuals’ meter information more frequently and with greater relevant detail.

The latest IT trend within utilities is the drive toward developing and implementing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, Electronic Bill Payment and Presentment Systems (EBPP), and improved Customer Information Systems (CIS) and integrating these as a holistic business enterprise system. Often these systems are not subject to the same level of cost justification scrutiny as an AMR system. A critical operational element of these systems is access and use of consumption information. However, the methods of gathering and processing this data is antiquated, steeped in legacy and as inflexible as the route codes, billing cycles and reading books that have been used for decades. Unfortunately, the corporate view is often that AMR is a luxury that must undergo the rigors of an iron-clad business case justification. Rather than look at AMR as a stand-alone technology or a system, it should be viewed as a catalytic transformational process that improves the core of the utility business.

Interest continues to grow in other areas of metering as well. “Informational grade” metering is coming of age. There are various ongoing business initiatives toward Activity Based Costing where sub-metering, shadow metering or behind the utility metering continue as new opportunities to add value. Billing and payment for actual consumption by specialty areas, such as departments and business groups, shows the value of information in dis-aggregation rather than aggregation.

Since its inception nearly 15 years ago, the AMRA has been providing a timely and relevant forum for the exchange of ideas, experiences and knowledge for utilities, vendors, and others suppliers. As a not-for-profit association, our charter has been to promote AMR through education and standards. While we remain committed to these core beliefs, our growth will be sustained by increasing our advocacy of AMR and by outreaching to other related industries. Many other areas have come to appreciate the value of near-real time utility consumption data. The Association recognizes that helping these related associations and interest areas can benefit from the knowledge-base we have developed.

Indeed, we have come “a long way, baby,” and the next journey is just beginning.

Ron Chebra is president of Telemacs. He is an expert in communication technologies including customer-communication networks, and advanced measurement and monitoring solutions. In the past 15 years, he has launched numerous programs and helped create a consortium of cable operators to provide broadband services for electric utilities.

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