VT: Computer glitch shuts down lottery

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Thursday, July 6, 2000 The luck of the lottery: Computer glitch shuts down games By David Mace


BARRE - Problems with a new computer system had many of Vermont's lottery retailers out of luck for three days, but things were finally returning to normal Wednesday.

Stores all over the state were unable to sell on-line lottery tickets for the Tri-State Lottery's Pick 3, Pick 4, Wincash, and Tri-State Megabucks games, sending customers searching for stores whose machines were working, and lottery officials scrambling to fix the problem.

According to Alan Yandow, executive director of the Vermont Lottery Commission, at one point shortly after the Sunday morning system switch, nearly 200 of the state's 473 lottery machines weren't working.

"As of noon (Wednesday) we had about 94 percent (446 of 473) of those up and running," Yandow said. By 5:30 p.m., he said all of the machines were reported to be working.

Technical problems arose Sunday, when the state switched from a system that had been supplied by West Greenwich, R.I.-based GTECH to new vendor, Autotote Lottery Corporation, of Rocky Hill, Conn.

According to Yandow, Autotote was the low bidder for a six-year contract to run the system, which will pay the company an estimated $14.8 million.

"It's estimated because the price we pay is based on a percentage of sales, so there's a little variability there," he said.

The contract also calls for Autotote to replace the machines that only validate instant tickets for the 252 agents who don't qualify for on-line lottery sales. Autotote is expected to receive another $4.6 million for the instant-only machines.

"They're also affected," Yandow said. "More software difficulties at this point."

The plan was to have Autotote's new high-tech Extrema machines, which sell and validate on-line tickets and validate instant tickets, go into action Sunday morning.

GTECH operates until 11 p.m., then play ends, Yandow said. On Saturday night, agents were supposed to shut down the GTECH machines at 11 p.m. and plug the Autotote machine into a telephone line.

"A number of things happened in terms of time," he said. "Once GTECH shut down the system they had to compile all the data, check it, and put it on a disc, which had to be picked up in Augusta, Maine and driven to Concord, N.H."

"It was loaded (on the new computer) there, checked again to make sure the data was all right, and used to bring up the entire new system," Yandow said.

On early Sunday morning Autotote began setting the individual store's machines up over the phone, and soon discovered there were problems.

"There were communications problems with the machines," Yandow said, that prevented them from connecting to the main computer. Some were caused by troubles switching over the phone circuits, while others were malfunctions in the lottery machines themselves.

Each agent had to be contacted over the phone, then walked through the steps of signing the machine on to the system to download the necessary computer program.

"If during that process, they found out the machine wasn't functioning  then a technician was dispatched to the agent's location," Yandow said. "Some agents had problems with their systems, with other agents it was simply a process of going through the steps with the agents  not all of them had problems."

By 2:30 p.m. Sunday, he said, the system was declared "live" and 285 of 473 machines were working. The outages were scattered across the state.

"There were some telephone lines in some areas that weren't functioning, so the agents in those areas were affected," Yandow said.

The Vermont Lottery office in Barre was deluged with phone calls, he said, and employees were essentially working on nothing but getting the system up and running.

Amy Otis, an area supervisor for Cumberland Farms convenience stores who oversee seven stores in Barre, Montpelier, and Burlington, said the north Barre location on North Main Street was the only one of her stores that had a working lottery machine.

"From what I was getting from a lot of customers, a lot of places were down," she said. With the only operating lottery terminal in the immediate area, Otis thought her sales for the north Barre store were up.

Otis said that officials and technicians from Autotote "did a really good job," and that by Monday afternoon the other stores were back up and running.

She said she wasn't too upset by the loss of the machines _ and their sales _ for a couple of days.

"I think anytime you're changing over something you kind of have to expect some problems," Otis said.

"I would not characterize them as serious problems," said Bill Huntley, president of Autotote Lottery Corp. "I don't know what the expectations were, but these conversions are a massive undertaking  It's a massive effort to orchestrate, and by and large it went as planned."

He said some of the problems were as simple as the agents not plugging the machine in correctly, while other problems arose from telephone circuit switches.

"By the end of the first day of conversion, something like 90 percent of the system was available  By and large we consider this to be a very successful conversion. By the standards in the industry, it was typical."

Yandow said it was difficult to say how many, if any, sales had been lost due to the outages.

" It's tough to pinpoint whether there was a loss of sales, or whether they just deferred to another day," he said. While individual stores will likely have no recourse for recovering any lost sales, the Lottery Commission could decide to enforce a performance clause in Autotote's contract to try to recoup some of the losses.

"We'll take a look at the overall situation when all the machines are up and running and make a decision at that point," Yandow said. "Players who wanted to play those games had to seek out alternate stores. We're not pleased that players were affected, and the system is taking longer than expected to get up, and we're not pleased about that."


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), July 06, 2000

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