BY BONNIE MODIAKGOTLA
The state-owned water supplier, Water Utilities Corporation (WUC), has no plans to introduce prepaid facilities for water supply, instead, the state monopoly will install smart meters as part of efforts to quell rising concerns over its faltering billing system, the corporation parent ministry said.
The debt-ridden WUC has received a tide of criticism on how it bills some of its clients – with the main complaint being monthly water bills that are not only inconsistent but at times leave consumers livid after being charged astronomical figures – sometimes as high as P100,000 for residential consumption.
This week, Itumeleng Moipisi, assistant minister of Land Management and Water Sanitation, revealed in parliament that WUC’s faulty billing system is down to the use of past consumption trend to estimate a customer bill in the event the customer’s meter could not be read.
He said the main challenge for WUC is access to clients’ residence due to locked gates and vicious dogs, and in that event, WUC employees usually leave a card for the consumer to fill in their meter readings, and submit to WUC within three days.
“Should the customer not provide the reading within the specified window, the WUC billing system would estimate the customer’s consumption and generate the bill based on the estimated average consumption of three months,” Moipisi explained.
WUC has no plans to introduce prepaid water supply which will allow consumers to pay only for the water they need, because the corporation is yet to identify a suitable technology for that kind of billing, the junior minister said. Instead, the water supplier is tapping on its broad fibre network for installing an Internet of Things (IoT) platform, in preparation for installation of smart meters.
“Smart meters will enable automatic and remote reading of customer meters and this will improve the efficiency and accuracy of customer billing. An IoT service provider has been engaged and is expected to complete the installation by December 2019,” Moipisi said.
“Replacement of conventional meters with smart meters will commence immediately after the completion of this exercise. The replacement of meters will be implemented in phases over a period of three to five years.”
When the smart meters are installed, WUC staff will be able to record water readings using a remote control which gives them access to the smart meter without having to enter the yard, as long as they are in close proximity, Moipisi said.
In 2015, WUC sent out an Expression of Interest (EOI) for the supply and installation of prepaid water meter system and automated meter reading (AMR). At the time, the corporation revealed that it uses a combination of AMR and prepaid meter reading at some premises, and it was looking at nationwide rollout to combat variety of challenges, such as customer billing and revenue collection.
According to the EOI, the contractor was to procure, install and manage the appropriate technology for the prepaid and AMR project. The AMR system was supposed to be able to record meter readings and send to a central server, which will then communicate with the billing system to trigger production of customer bills.
According to Beauty Mokoba, WUC’s Corporate Communications Manager, following the expression of interest and associated responses, WUC decided to test out the solution through a pilot project which was rolled out in Sowa and Phakalane. The pilot project was unsuccessful and was not rolled out further.
Mokoba said with IoT platform, the corporation will be able get access to real time operational data and control of connected devices. It is expected to connect meters, quality or pressure sensors, assets, among other things.
“In a one-point access digital platform. The hub will work with SAP which currently provides Enterprise Resources Planning. The Corporation therefore had to select a suitable partner to operate at this level hence the selection of Siemens PLC in partnership with SAP,” Mokoba said in response to which service provider was chosen.
“Work has begun in preparing the platform and this includes assessment of WUC infrastructure and ensuring system compatibility,” she said
Mokoba said the decision by government to transfer all its fibre owned networks to Botswana Fibre Network (BoFiNet) will not derail their plans as they got assurance from Ministry of Transport and Corporation and BoFiNet that WUC will continue to have access to its infrastructure.