Vasundhar Boddapati, Head, India Operations, Exceleron Software
Vasundhar Boddapati's area of Expertise is Smart metering, Pre-Pay , Customer Engagement
Q. What’s your outlook of the Indian Power Sector in the post COVID world?
This is one of the largest, if not the largest economic and cross-cultural shocks in my lifetime. All sectors have been impacted in numerous ways, some not yet fully measurable. However, as the Indian Government took strong steps to further contain the spread of the virus, the essential need for reliable distribution and in-residence electricity has never been greater. The lock-down and work from home environment has forced an unprecedent move of business activity out from commerce centres to residences. We will learn a lot from this experience, and I am optimistic the lessons will be applied as we prepare for an aggressive roll-out of 25-crore prepaid smart meters.
The Power Sector itself was ailing prior to the pandemic with DISCOM debt increasing and electricity theft some of the highest in the world. The Ministry of Power has already embraced important plans to “electrify the economy” with new prepaid smart meters. Though the pandemic has certainly delayed some plans to move forward, the plan is a good one and we must push forward when it is safe to do so, despite the challenges.
The deployment of these smart meters will transform the Power Sector by helping DISCOMs resolve their bad debt, stop electricity theft and improve their financial positions while also providing greater energy usage awareness to consumers. Globally, prepaid smart meters have been a boon to utilities and have increased customers satisfaction. We must not blink and must overcome and apply lessons learned during this pandemic to get to a more tenable future. The Indian Power Sector will be much stronger for it.
Q. Has the current crisis impacted your organisations’ capex targets, investment or fundraising plans?
We are fortunate. We provide cloud software that helps utilities manage their financials and helps their consumers manage their energy usage more effectively while paying down debt over time. The global need for our solution is as strong as ever and we expect it to be even stronger as we emerge from the pandemic.
DISCOMs and their customers will need tools to help them navigate through the negative economic impact inflicted by the pandemic. Many people are struggling, and we provide software that can help them manage their electricity usage and debts. Given the challenging state of the Indian Power Sector pre-COVID-19, the pandemic has only increased the need for mutually beneficial solutions that help both DISCOMs and consumers.
Our Indian office opened in 2011 and we have seen steady growth in our Indian employee base since that time. That growth has accelerated during these last months as we foresee an expanding demand for our software and services both here in India and globally.
Q. Will the 90k Crore Lifeline from the Government help in significant improvement in the financial health of the industry from generators to DISCOMs and that of their suppliers?
Prior to the pandemic, the Ministry of Power had the right plan for the Power Sector. The roll-out of the 25-crore prepaid smart meters is one of the most significant steps in helping DISCOMs solve their financial difficulties. It is also an enabler for better electricity service for consumers, greater energy awareness and improved customer satisfaction. The Government help is an important lifeline necessary to get to the other side of this crisis. It does not in and of itself fix the problems, but it will enable the Power Sector to get through this period with their future plans intact and that by itself is reason for optimism.
Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. Fortunately, India has already planned to break this financially debilitating cycle of poor reliability, high energy theft and increasing DISCOM debt. The greatest threat to future success is to let this pandemic halt the progress planned. The DISCOMs must use the money provided to push forward with these plans or the steadying influence of those funds will soon fade back to the same cycle of insanity. I believe the Ministry of Power has the right plan and we have the opportunity, with unwavering fortitude, to overcome the challenges we have long faced, pre-pandemic, for the betterment of our the Power Sector, our country and all Indians who will benefit from a fully electrified economy.
Q. What would be your organisation’s key priorities/focus areas for the next 3 quarters of this fiscal year?
We have a prepay solution that has been proven again and again to help utilities and their customers. We plan to deploy it in more places and to continue to enhance the solution based on our utility/DISCOM feedback. We will continue to grow our Indian workforce to meet our future needs and the anticipate expanding needs of DISCOMs and utilities. We deployed our first utility prepay solution in 2006 and have since steadily grown the business to become a global leader in prepay. The pandemic has certainly affected everyone, but fortunately the demand for our solution continues to grow and we will follow the same plan that has been successful for us.
We have been fortunate to work with some great partner companies as part of our successful prepaid deployments. India has a number of leading technology and services companies that are working with utilities to solve their problems. We expect to expand our growing network of partners as part of the coming prepaid smart meter roll-out. Successful smart metering deployments in other countries have always relied on a strong ecosystem of companies that brought best-in-practice solutions and experience to the mix. No one company can do everything the best. Although we have one of the leading prepay solutions in the world, we expect to rely on a strong network of partners to provide IT and deployment services, smart metering capabilities and core utility metering capabilities. It is the best way to scale a world-class solution that will meet the challenges of the Indian Power Sector.
Q. How is your organisation addressing concerns of data security and cyber threats across your projects/operations?
All utilities have never been at greater risk of a cyber-attack than the current digital environment in which we operate. Gone are the days of individual bad actors that sought to deface any vulnerable website. We live in an age of state-sponsored cyber-terrorism with some countries employing legions of hackers to test and target very specific critical assets of their adversaries. As part of a country’s critical infrastructure, utilities are a prime target. There has been a noted increase in utility targeting during the pandemic.
Data and cyber security cannot be after thoughts. Even if you have the best software, you cannot “bolt-on” security and expect the solution to be truly secure. Security must be built from the ground up and extend beyond just the software or technology a company provides to the very controls utilized within the company’s business operations.
Several years ago, Exceleron successfully pursued Service Organization Control (SOC) 2 Type II certification to ensure that we meet and exceed security standards across all of our system and organizational controls so that we could provide our utility customers with the most secure solution. This certification extends across our global business units and includes our India operations. This compliance process involves having a 3rd-party audit your organization annually to confirm a proven level of security and privacy control compliance. This level of comprehensive compliance is neither easy nor inexpensive, but it is necessary to ensure that Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) providers follow robust and consistent methods and processes for securing customer data while integrating cloud-based services into security conscientious organizations.
Exceleron spent nearly 2 years enhancing, upgrading and reviewing our security controls including architecting computer/device access control, application access control and job functions to meet this level of compliance and ensure we minimize cyber risks. Many SaaS companies will hide behind their hosting provider being a SOC2 compliant company. Although utilizing hosting and data centre companies that are SOC2 compliant as part of your SaaS solution is a good idea, it does not confer or prove under audit the level and types of control and compliance rigor and is not equivalent to the direct SOC2 Type II 3rd-party audited verification that Exceleron undertakes annually.
Along with maintaining SOC2 Type II security compliance, Exceleron also maintains a company security policy that incorporates procedures, processes, controls, and tools at every step of our Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC). Exceleron incorporates hundreds of security features across our compliance controls, network, system, integrations, and up-time policy. We do not merely tell our customers how we are secure when they ask, but rather sell security as a differentiator of our prepaid solution. Utilities have a big target on their backs, and we take our responsibility in securing their data and systems very seriously.
Q. Do you think that the pandemic & economic downturn would significantly slow down India’s planned roll out of smart meters?
COVID certainly did pose significant challenges to how we operate and may change how we operate post-pandemic; however, with the current economic situation and down turn it has become even more important for us to ensure the future financial stability and operational efficiency of DISCOMs currently stressed by bad debt. With the Ministry of Power and EESL’s strategy and demonstrated execution at scale, I believe the roll-out will move forward as planned. The Government understands the importance of such an ambitious initiative, and the need to invest in the nation and progress for generations to come.