Wireless Net Helps Utility Boost Customer Service

Illinois Power Co. is plugging wireless technology into its customer service activities in a bid to improve its field operations and help it retain customers as Illinois opens its electric marketplace to competition.

Illinois Power, a subsidiary of $2.4 billion Illinova Corp. in Decatur, Ill., provides gas and electric services to nearly 1 million customers, mainly in central Illinois.

After years of planning and implementation, Illinois Power last month completed a rollout of a wireless land-antenna-based system that connects 500 service trucks equipped with laptops to a central computer-aided dispatching system, said Roger Koester, supervisor of energy delivery technology.

The system has reduced the utility's dispatching and service costs and allows customers to schedule service more reliably.

Koester said the project has cost millions but declined to elaborate for competitive reasons. Spending began in 1997, and Illinois Power expects to see a return on its investment by the end of this year.

For example, the project has generated thousands of dollars per month in fixed-cost savings because dispatching is now done centrally, said Koester.

Still, he stressed that the main improvement has been in customer service. "A few years ago, there weren't that many competitors," said Koester. But since then, the competition "has just exploded."

Utilities nationwide are looking for ways to apply a variety of new technologies, including wireless networks and pagers, to gain a competitive edge as deregulation takes root, said David Burks, a financial analyst at J.J.B. Hilliard, W.L. Lyons Inc. in Louisville, Ky.

He added that Illinois Power's customer service project has helped the company increase its stock price during the past year, while the stock prices of 30 other utilities he follows have dropped.

Before Illinois Power upgraded its dispatching system with technology from BellSouth Wireless Data LP in Atlanta, the utility's 26 field offices would take phone requests from customers for services or repairs. The customers' calls would be written down by a customer service agent, who would then forward them to one of the dispatchers to coordinate work orders with repair crews.

Now, "the driver gets in his truck and instead of searching through paper, his day's work is loaded on the laptop," Koester said. Many drivers now start their routes from home, eliminating trips to a central dispatcher. That's saving the company thousands of dollars in gas and making its repair crew more productive.

Because the trucks are also equipped with Global Positioning System locators tied to a central computer, Illinois Power can easily find a truck to respond to an emergency.

Koester said some crew members have balked at learning the laptop system, but the majority like using the Windows 3.1-ready laptops, partly because they can take them from the truck docking stations to a meter or switch, where they can type in updated information.

Kevin Bennett, the business manager of Local 1306 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Decatur, said some crew members have complained about how communications are compromised when their trucks are in a dead radio zone in the service territory. When that happens, he said, the repairmen have to leave a job and find a phone to contact a dispatcher.

Koester said Illinois Power at the outset created a partnership with BellSouth to build 27 wireless base stations throughout central Illinois to keep dead zones to a minimum.

In fact, he said, the wireless laptop project is so successful that it will be used as a model by Dynegy Inc., a Houston-based power company Illinova plans to merge with at the end of this month.

Illinois commercial customers were free to choose their electricity supplier as of Oct. 1. Home users will be able to choose starting next year, according to the Illinois Commerce Commission.

The commission said only Arthur Daniels Midland Co. in Decatur has said it will be working with another supplier, AmerenCIPS in St. Louis, ending its contracts with Illinois Power in July.

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