Case Studies

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Adjusting to the New Reality: Cyber Threats During the COVID-19 Crisis

Working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a lifesaver, but it has also brought new threats. Working from home allows people to minimize social interaction, which limits and slows the spread of COVID-19. But, as highlighted in a recent alert from the North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC), the electric power industry “is in a period of heightened cyber risk due to a large contingent of industry employees working remotely.” As remote working ramped up in response to COVID-19, there has been an increase in opportunistic actors who are testing the defenses of businesses as their workers shift to home offices, NERC said.Cyber criminals, for instance, have targeted remote work technologies, such as video conferencing services even as many of their targets, employees working remotely, are more vulnerable by being distracted by domestic circumstances and anxiety about the threat of COVID-19. And, in many cases, those employees and their employers are even more vulnerable because they are working on computers that had to be made secure quickly.“We are lucky to be able to do it, but working from home comes with risks,” Scott Kaylor, manager, member cybersecurity and networking services at National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC), said.“Overall, our workload for supporting our Members in their work-at-home transition has increased by at least three times,” Kaylor said. “We are still seeing Members sending workers home and our calls are still about two times what they are under normal circumstances.”With so many employees working from home, “the threat has grown immensely because now you have all these unknowns,” Kaylor said. All those devices greatly increase what IT experts call the “attack surface” available to cyber criminals.In late April, the FBI’s cyber division reported receiving 3,000 to 4,000 cybersecurity complaints [...]

By | May 21st, 2020|Case Studies|Comments Off on Adjusting to the New Reality: Cyber Threats During the COVID-19 Crisis

Jackson Electric Membership Corporation

“One Jackson EMC.” It’s a saying the employees of Jackson Electric Membership Corporation have, and means that everyone at Jackson EMC—the Board, executives, staff—is in it together, jointly celebrating the highs and supporting each other during the lows. Equally unified is the cooperative’s entire business technology system, now under one umbrella: NISC’s enterprise software solution. Since implementation of NISC’s enterprise software in 2019, Jackson EMC is enjoying paperless workflows, a more mobile workforce and higher levels of member engagement. Of particular note, however, is how the cooperative arrived at the decision to partner with NISC, and how Jackson EMC prepared for the huge undertaking that is wholesale software conversion and implementation. BEST OF BREED VS. ENTERPRISE APPROACH Jackson EMC, headquartered in Jefferson, Ga., is one of the largest electric cooperatives in the United States. The cooperative is operated by approximately 450 employees in four district offices, and serves more than 231,100 meters spanning 10 counties. Jackson EMC is a geographically diverse cooperative—which compounded the challenge of keeping each of the co-op’s best of breed software pieces updated and integrated. After an employee survey laid bare the facts, the co-op took action. “We had exhausted our ability to keep up with technology in-house with our own resources, and we needed a partner to help us with that,” said Chip Jakins, Jackson EMC president and CEO. “We knew members would benefit if we were more integrated, and we had the support from the Board and the leadership team, so it wasn’t difficult to get the commitment to move forward. It was the obvious choice to move the cooperative forward.” In 2016, an employee team born from Jackson EMC’s Strategic Planning Process was asked to choose one of [...]

By | March 19th, 2020|Case Studies|Comments Off on Jackson Electric Membership Corporation

Flint Hills Rural Electric Cooperative

THERE’S A SAYING AT NISC: A Member is a Member is a Member. No, it’s not an imitation of a broken record—it’s affirmation that each and every NISC Member, no matter their bottom line or how many accounts they serve, are given NISC’s very best care and attention. While Members are treated equally no matter their size, how NISC helps those Members achieve their goals can differ. Members serving relatively fewer accounts face unique challenges when it comes to efficient and cost-effective operation of their company. A TOOL FOR SMALL UTILITIES Flint Hills Rural Electric Cooperative Association, headquartered in Council Grove, Kan., serves approximately 6,500 accounts in eastern Kansas, and serves as a shining example of how a Member of their size can effectively engage with NISC and use their technology to maintain a high level of customer service. For Flint Hills and Charles (Chuck) Goeckel, Flint Hills general manager, economies of scale and employee time constraints are two of the cooperative’s foremost challenges. “Our meter density is 2.6 meters per mile, so it becomes a cost challenge to divvy up the cost of a mile of line to just 2.6 customers,” Goeckel said. “Another challenge is that we’re pretty small—we have 23 employees. Those employees need to wear multiple hats for the functions that they do, and it becomes a challenge to keep them educated in multiple areas to be able to backup other employees for emergency purposes.” To help smaller Members such as Flint Hills meet their technology needs in an affordable manner, NISC offers the Small Utility Productivity Package (SUPP). The SUPP allows smaller-sized utilities the option of bundling four of NISC’s most popular solutions at a discounted rate. It’s available to [...]

By | November 21st, 2019|Case Studies|Comments Off on Flint Hills Rural Electric Cooperative

iVUE Connect | Financials – HR Module

Driving Development NISC’s development cycle for new solutions goes through many phases, but one critical step is the beta testing process. During this process, NISC’s Members have a chance to try new solutions and help us determine if they’re working properly, help find bugs and generally optimize the solution for release to the Membership. NISC’s iVUE Connect solution has been going through this testing process. Members are currently testing new modules for iVUE Connect – Service and the latest piece of the software, iVUE Connect – Financials. While the iVUE Connect – Financials HR persona has been in the hands of NISC’s beta partners for testing, another unlikely development partner for this particular solution was discovered along the way – the NISC employees. “We looked to our employees to beta of our software, just like we ask our Members to participate in the beta program,” said John Weber, NISC product line manager. “We know we have a lot of employees here at NISC, and this was an opportunity for us to help engage them in our single strategic initiative, iVUE Connect. This was an opportunity to expose all aspects of NISC to what we’re working on with iVUE Connect.” iVUE. Anytime, Anywhere. iVUE Connect – Financials is the second iVUE Connect module to be released for the solution, with iVUE Connect – Operations currently in development. iVUE Connect provides NISC Members a user-friendly way to interact with their iVUE data. The cloud-based solution is a new spin on the iVUE Solution that Members use every day. A new, intuitive interface makes finding information and completing tasks easier than ever, without changing screens. iVUE Connect’s role-based design is set up to closely match roles within NISC [...]

By | October 10th, 2019|Case Studies|Comments Off on iVUE Connect | Financials – HR Module

SmartHub Connect

The Need for Speed Broadband – it’s not just for web surfing anymore. Having access to high-speed internet is becoming essential for more than just sharing funny memes and videos. Small businesses use it for quick and easy payments, doctor visits can take place right through an iPad or PC and education harnesses the power of connectivity at just about every grade level. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to high-speed internet. And even for some that do, that access can be lacking tremendously. That’s what Jenni Smith and the employees at Oklahoma Electric Cooperative in Norman, Okla., discovered. “We have a lot of schools in our rural areas that have terrible internet service,” said Smith, who serves as the manager of enterprise applications for OEC. “Also, a lot of the current providers, and only providers that are out in the rural areas, are really overcharging. They provide poor service, very slow speeds and they’re just charging too much. We’re big about wanting to serve our community and membership, and this is a service that we can provide them.” As OEC was getting ready to run fiber lines to their substations in order to help improve connectivity, the need for high speed broadband to their community drove the organization to expand their rollout and get members online. Building Interest in Broadband Implementing a broadband rollout is a large undertaking for any organization. The physical rollout and staffing requirements need to be determined. Every organization wants to use resources efficiently and minimize added work for staff. One thing that can dramatically help with a broadband rollout? Interest. With the help of NISC’s SmartHub Connect, which combines the customer engagement portal of SmartHub with the marketing and analytics [...]

By | October 10th, 2019|Case Studies|Comments Off on SmartHub Connect

Broadband Expands Revenue, Customer Service for Public Power Utilities

Offering broadband services helps public power utilities achieve two goals at once. For one thing, they can incentivize economic development in their service area. They can also add a new source of revenue to help offset any decline in electricity sales. “The electric industry is evolving rapidly as energy efficient products proliferate in homes and businesses, so more and more people are using less and less of our product,” said Jeff Dykes, president & CEO of BrightRidge in Johnson City, Tennessee. “We must diversify our product offerings to stabilize our electric rates.” Plan Put in Motion BrightRidge became nimbler several years ago, converting from a municipal utility to an energy authority, and resumed consideration of offering broadband services. Costs were prohibitive when first evaluated almost a decade ago. To bring down costs — and to make its broadband offering more attractive to customers — the utility adopted a hybrid approach, offering fiber optic service in urban areas and high-speed wireless broadband service in the more rural areas of its service territory. Last July, BrightRidge’s board of directors approved an eight-year, $64 million plan to offer broadband services. In September, the utility cleared its final regulatory hurdle when the Johnson City Commission approved the plan. BrightRidge expects that over time its new broadband division will reduce pressure on electric rates with new electric system revenue from interest payments, as well as shared leases and personnel. It is estimated that the broadband division could generate $41 million in cumulative revenue to the electric division by 2030. BrightRidge began the first phase of its program in early 2019, running fiber optic cable to downtown Johnson City, nine industrial parks, and downtown Jonesborough, as well as initiating wireless service [...]

By | August 19th, 2019|Case Studies|Comments Off on Broadband Expands Revenue, Customer Service for Public Power Utilities

Pedernales Electric Cooperative

From the smallest of Members to the largest, NISC products and solutions have a proven track record of meeting our Members’ needs while providing an outstanding return on investment. The very largest of those Members is experiencing the benefits after more than three years of utilizing NISC’s iVUE® enterprise system. Pedernales Electric Cooperative (PEC), headquartered in Johnson City, Texas, employs about 800 people and serves about 264,000 members across 8,100 square miles. It’s the largest electric distribution cooperative in the United States. PEC has experienced significant cost savings and operational gains utilizing NISC’s enterprise software since its implementation in 2014. The project stands as NISC’s biggest deployment of its iVUE software to-date. PEC's Challenges PEC serves a large and diverse service area within a region called Texas Hill Country, which fans westward from Austin, Texas. PEC’s membership is growing rapidly: From 2017–2018 alone, the co-op grew by nearly 15,000 members. On top of navigating rapid growth, PEC has historically faced exorbitant consultant and paper costs and underwent frequent integrations and testing of several third-party applications. “We needed something that was easy to use, especially for the employees who have direct contact with members. We wanted an easy mobile bill payment solution for our members, and we wanted something that would drive our contractor costs down and our total cost of operation down. The good news is, we got all of those things when we got iVUE,” said Lawanda Parnell, PEC chief information officer. “We are very happy overall with the iVUE system,” said DeLisa Evers, PEC director of support services for member relations. “I have heard members and agents say they wouldn’t go back for anything. They feel it’s the best solution we could have [...]

By | May 8th, 2019|Case Studies|Comments Off on Pedernales Electric Cooperative

DirectLink

Two co-ops join forces to boost OSS/Billing integration and support With its OSS/Billing provider of 15 years preparing to replace its existing platform in 2017, Canby, OR-based DirectLink decided to see what kind of improvements it might be able to realize by evaluating what other OSS/Billing providers had to offer, according to Sharon Puhlman, Member Services Support Supervisor for the cooperative, which currently serves more than 8000+ members. The triple-play provider continues to see steady growth across a wide demographic – from farmers to commuters – within its ~100 square mile rural serving area adjacent to Portland. While most members have two or three types of services and make changes from time-to-time, others do not change anything in a three- or four-year time frame, according to Puhlman. In business since 1904, DirectLink takes great pride in its current 90% positive customer service ratings. Many of the company’s 60 employees live and work shoulder-to-shoulder with the co-op’s members in Canby and Mt. Angel, which gave DirectLink all the more reason to choose the very best OSS/Billing platform on the market. Identifying Priorities “No OSS has everything, but when we began looking at what other vendors had to offer, we knew we wanted to work with a company that would provide us with better and more localized support on a consistent and timely basis,” said Puhlman. After all, DirectLink offers its own members a 24/7 technical support line. Expecting the same strong support from its future OSS/Billing supplier made sense. “Our reporting and other needs evolved and demanded more complexity that we were not able to create on our own,” she explained. “Our cost for reports depended on what we needed done and how long it took [...]

By | February 19th, 2019|Case Studies|Comments Off on DirectLink

In With Mobile, out With Binders

Hannibal, Missouri’s dedication to historical preservation offers visitors a sense of what the small city on the banks of the Mississippi River may have looked like when Mark Twain walked its streets more than one hundred years ago. While Hannibal’s residents are proud of the city’s history, its 115-year-old public power utility realized that it needed to break free from its historical way of doing things to better serve its customers and adopt more efficient ways of doing business. By leveraging the latest technology applications, Hannibal Board of Public Works, which provides electricity, water and sewer to the city’s 17,800 residents, has quickly been able to improve operations in many areas including customer service and field work. Until recently, when field workers for Hannibal Board of Public Works had trouble finding a meter or underground asset, they had to call back to headquarters for help. Calling seemed a bit dated in an age of texting and apps. And the task at headquarters was gargantuan. Staff had to “dig through a mountain of books,” eight-inch-thick binders, about 11,000 pages in all, searching for the address, says Matthew Jones, who serves as senior information technology specialist for the public power utility. “As you’d be looking through the antique pages, you would hope that they would not disintegrate,” he says. Eventually these documents were made available electronically but only accessible from an office computer. Similar problems existed in locating water system and hydrant valves. The records were particularly vague for buried equipment, and again only available on the office computer. “The measurement was from the back of the curb or center line of the road. Trying to locate all that in the middle of the night during a [...]

By | November 5th, 2018|Case Studies|Comments Off on In With Mobile, out With Binders

From Assessment to Action: Defending Against Cyber Attacks

It seems like every day brings news of a new cvbersecurity threat, whether it is a sophisticated phishing attack or the latest malware developed by bad actors. No utility, large or small, is immune from cyber attack. While they recognize the seriousness of this issue, many public power utilities are not sure how to track potential threats or put defenses in place. The path is complex and can seem daunting. A robust option to monitor threats is the Electricity Information Sharing and Analysis Center portal run by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation. The E-ISAC portal monitors threats specific to the nation’s electric grid and sends alerts to all subscribed utilities. In terms of taking action to protect against threats, the American Public Power Association’s Cybersecurity Scorecard is a good starting point. The scorecard is an online self-assessment tool to help public power utilities understand their cybersecurity strengths and weaknesses. Along with a score on their cyber posture, utilities completing the self-assessment receive personalized recommendations on systems and processes they need to put in place. John Kuhlman, Information Systems Manager at Decatur Utilities (DU), Alabama, with 165 employees, noted that the utility’s last IT audit showed that employee cybersecurity training needed to be strengthened. “Increasingly, all of our systems and staff rely on the Internet. We are constantly pushing and/or pulling electronic data to and from our customers, vendors and contractors. With that, we expose ourselves to all kinds of cyber risk,” he said. The utility took the risk of cyberattack to heart and decided to partner with National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) to bolster their programs. The St. Louis-based information technology organization develops, implements and supports software and hardware solutions for more than 850 [...]

By | August 28th, 2018|Case Studies|Comments Off on From Assessment to Action: Defending Against Cyber Attacks