Innovative use of SMS by public utilities

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February 23, 2006 As mobile phone penetration approaches ubiquity, the potential for technology to make our lives more productive grows daily. Two glowing examples of this have just been launched in Australia from organizations intent on changing public perception of them from low-tech utilities to high-tech service organizations. Mobile phone penetration in Australia is expected to reach 94% by mid-2006, enabling personalised information services to be delivered at new levels. Connex Melbourne operates 15 rail lines, 300+ trains, 200+ stations and carries 145 million passengers a year. Transport users can now register for SMS updates via the Connex web site, providing details of their travel patterns. When a train is delayed or cancelled, a personalised SMS message is sent advising of the delay and next scheduled service. Interactive SMS queries are also possible. Similarly, Australia Post’s new 'Mail2Day’ service is a notification service that lets Post Office Box customers know when they have received mail either by SMS or email.

The Connex SMSTimetables system

Connex customers register for SMS Updates on the Connex Melbourne web site and provide details of their regular travel patterns which are captured in a central database. When their train is delayed or cancelled, the train control centre, Metrol, enters the information into a content management application using an online web portal. The information is filtered to match customers whose travel patterns fall within the parameters of the particular train service and the online portal sends out a personalised SMS messages. For example: David, the 7.35 Lilydale train to Flinders Street has been delayed by 15 mins due to signal faults. Connex apologises for any inconvenience.

The service has also enabled customers to check the availability of train services on the fly. The customer composes an SMS with the first five letters of their preferred departure station and arrival station, and if they wish, the time and day of travel, and then send it to the service telephone number - 1889960. Inside 30 seconds, a reply message is sent with the next four times the requested train service leaves the departure station. At the end of the month, the customer’s phone bill will show a 55 cent charge for this premium service.

“SMS is the most immediate, discreet and cost-effective means of communicating with our large customer base, and getting the information out as quickly as possible can make all the difference to an individual’s travel plans,” says Connex Melbourne CEO Bruce Hughes.

The company also uses the system to automatically send SMS Updates to Connex staff to alert them immediately of ongoing changes to scheduling or any complications with the network. This has significantly reduced the time and costs of keeping staff informed and since the introduction of SMS Timetables, there has been a reduction in calls to the Call Centre for timetable information.

Passenger numbers on the Melbourne metropolitan rail system have increased since the services were introduced in 2004. Passenger numbers, which have been increasing by 1-2 per cent a year, increased by 7-8 per cent in 2005.

Connex is currently investigating the practicality of introducing an email version of the system, at the request of existing users.

Australia Post’s Mail2Day service

Australia Post’s Mail2Day service was implemented as a result of successful trials where a vast majority of customers found the service to be time-saving and convenient. A typical response from the research was “I only have so many hours in the day and my time is worth more back in the office.”

The Mail2Day notification service is charged on a monthly pro-rata basis with the same annual payment cycle as for their post office box with a cost to customers is AUS$7.50 per month for the SMS service and AUS$4.50 per month for the e-mail service.

The Mail2Day service complements the post office box service and is included on the annual invoice for renewal of the post office box lease. Though the service is new and has not yet been publicised, take-up has already been strong increasing by over 20% per month, with one third of users opting for the SMS service. Customers can choose whether they are notified on the days when they have mail, or on the days they do not have mail, or every day (whether they have mail or not).

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