M-commerce starts to motor

30 Jan 2003

News flash! ‘Sales of chocolate bars and newspapers set to plummet following launch of mobile parking scheme’. We’ve all been there, parking in Merrion Square two minutes before a meeting and dashing off to a newsagent to get change for the pay and display machine.

It’s frustrating, it’s inconvenient and, as of now, it’s history thanks to the new mPark initiative launched by Dublin City Council.

The idea behind mPark is simple: motorists pay for parking using their mobile phones and have the cost debited from their mobile or credit card accounts. For now, the service is limited to the 150 pay and display machine in what the council calls the yellow tariff area between Parnell Square in the north city to Stephen’s Green in the south, but the organisation plans to extend the service if it turns out to be successful.

Ever since mobile phones became popular, network operators have been on the look out for commercially viable services that would also be a hit with the public.

Pay for parking via your mobile seems an unlikely starting point for a revolution, but the new service bears all the hallmarks of a killer application. During the first two weeks of operation, thousands of transactions have reportedly gone through the system and during the year-long trial phase that preceded the launch repeat usage of the service – a key indicator of its potential – ran at well over 95pc.

“Everyone thinks it’s a great idea and so far we’ve had very positive feedback,” enthuses Paul McCarthy, head of parking enforcement at Dublin City Council. “We’re going to run the service and evaluate it after six months and a year with a view to rolling it out into the next tariff zone, which will stretch from Ballsbridge to the Mater Hospital.”

Using your mobile phone to pay for parking seems as obvious as it is useful, but the simplicity of mPark belies the complexity and scale of the project required to make it happen.

Responsible for developing the service was a large team of suppliers and service providers at the hub of Its Mobile, an ambitious software company specialising in m-commerce applications.

According to Kieran McCrae, sales director at Its Mobile, the project has lasted almost three years, from concept, through trial, to marketable service. Having first got Dublin City Council interested in the concept, Its Mobile sought a technology alliance with the French company, SchlumbergerSema, which makes Dublin’s pay and display machines and holds 60pc of the global market.

At the time, Its Mobile – a fledgling operation based in Lower Mount Street – had no relationship whatever with the multi-billion dollar SchlumbergerSema group. “The reason we thought of it was because its name was on the meters,” recalls McCrae. On contacting its distributor in Ireland, Its Mobile was referred to the head of product marketing at SchlumbergerSema’s e-city division in Besancon, south east France. The Its Mobile team flew over and presented to the marketing and technical team there.

Its Mobile’s pitch was given added credence by a subsequent supportive phone call from Owen Keegan, director of traffic at Dublin City Council, to SchlumbergerSema. As the council is SchlumbergerSema’s second largest customer in the UK and Ireland region (after London), Keegan’s words carried considerable weight. SchlumbergerSema duly entered into a technology partnership with Its Mobile to jointly develop the system.

The result of the partnership is a wireless modem that sits within the new mPark-enabled pay and display machines. This is the crucial piece of technology that communicates with Its Mobile’s servers in Park West, which process each transaction. But it also has a side benefit for Dublin City Council.

“Formerly if a machine went down and was unserviceable, there was no way of knowing unless member of public rang in or a pay and display staff member came across it,” says McCarthy. “By having a modem in a machine they are networked and so we know which ones are out of service. We are in discussions with SchlumbergerSema that has developed a maintenance management package for its machines. We hope to introduce this service in six months or so.”

Once the working prototype was developed, it needed to be integrated with mobile operators O2 and Vodafone for billing and the banks for credit card clearing. A year-long testing period was required to ensure the system was robust and glitch-free as well as to gauge the reaction of users.

Now the system is up and running in Dublin, Its Mobile hopes to extend it both to other cities in Ireland and around the world, he McCrae. “Our intention is to roll out our application wherever machines exist, which is in most of the big cities in Europe. We’re concentrating on the UK, Germany and Australia.”

The launch of the mPark is, he claims, a genuine world first for Irish technology. “There are more than a dozen companies in Europe and the US developing m-payments systems for parking, but none of them except Its Mobile’s system work with a pay and display machine,” he adds.