Parking packets

Sharjah Municipality has largely automated its entire network of parking machines, thanks to an innovative use of the cellular GPRS network from Etisalat. NME reports.

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By  Administrator Published  February 1, 2007

One of the inescapable challenges of maintaining any infrastructure spread over a wide area is how to service large numbers of locations as efficiently as possible. For organisations such as Sharjah Municipality (SM) in the UAE, this challenge often spreads to many dozens of systems; one of the most visible is the network of pay-and-display parking machines.

Sharjah currently boasts 460 active parking machines, with a further 400 ready for commissioning and installation. Each machine is autonomous, drawing power from a solar panel and being largely maintenance-free, aside from coin collection and paper replacement.

However, the Municipality needs to collect usage statistics from the machines on a regular basis, and also needs to update them with tariff changes and details of public holidays. In the past this work was done manually, according to Safwan A. Khallouf, head of the technical section within SM's IT department.

"The older machines were standalone; a technician with a laptop would reprogram each machine," he explains.

Last year the Municipality began planning the deployment of 600 new parking machines, to supplement the existing 260 terminals. As part of the new installations, SM staff and the project integrators - Energy International - investigated using a remote access method to retrieve parking machine data and upload new rules.

The cellular phone network offered the easiest way to add remote functionality, and the team considered both GSM and GPRS (general packet radio service) systems, finally settling on GPRS thanks to its flexibility and cost-effectiveness compared to GSM.

"GSM lacks the two-way communication we wanted, it lacks future capability - for example to use SMS - and because they are set to dial at a fixed time, if something goes wrong at that moment, you cannot communicate with the machine," says Khallouf.

"If you have GPRS, the machine is always on, and you can call from the data centre at any time - you don't have to wait for the machine to call."

Khallouf adds that GPRS was also more cost-effective than GSM, as it was priced on data sent and received, rather than the duration of a call: "Studies by the company looked at the cost of using GSM and GPRS - with GSM, you have to dial, and pay for the call. For GPRS, we have a packet data service, which gives us 1Gbyte of data a month for a fixed cost - around US$1,900 per month. This way we don't have to audit the calls - it's predictable."

Energy International added the GPRS modems to the parking machines - also retrofitting the older models with the new hardware. SM and the integrators approached Etisalat regarding the GPRS service, and after agreeing on the data package, began work on the configuration.

‘The main challenge was to get the GPRS working, because of the scale. It took us a couple of months to tweak the configuration - we were on the phone with Etisalat to change this, change that, all the time," says Syed Ajmal Ahmed, manager of Energy International.

According to Ahmed, Khallouf and Etisalat, this configuration stage was the most challenging of the project; Energy International had examined similar GPRS projects in Germany, but working out the specific protocols between Etisalat and SM was necessarily intensive.

"In terms of communication, we were the victim in a way," jokes Khallouf. "All the bad times are now past - the integrators and Etisalat now have experience in deploying this solution, so it will be easier."

The GPRS service is entirely managed by Etisalat - SM transmits its data to the telecoms provider over two leased lines (one for redundancy), and Etisalat handles all communication between its GPRS cloud and the parking machines' modems.

"Each of the SIM cards are programmed individually for the service - it's not like a normal mobile phone SIM," explains Khallouf. "Each card is assigned an IP address, so it's data-enabled only, and can't be used for voice."

Etisalat issued 930 SIMs for the project in total; because of the size of the implementation, some SIM cards were found to be faulty and needed to be replaced - something both Etisalat and SM acknowledge as inevitable at this scale.

The first batch of 200 new machines went live in December 2006, along with the retrofitted older models; SM will make an additional 200 machines active in the near future, and will deploy the final batch of machines after this. The GPRS service is now fully operational for all active parking machines, and SM is already reaping the rewards.

"In half an hour, we get all the data from the machines - I've programmed from 12:01am to 12:30am," says Ahmed. "Normally Etisalat takes the GPRS service down for maintenance at 12:30am, so we need to do it before that happens. In fact to be frank, we don't need all the time at the moment - when all 860 machines are running, we'll need half an hour, but right now we only need around 10 minutes."

The return on investment from the Municipality's point of view is crystal clear - there is a massive labour saving by not having to visit the machines unnecessarily, and the process of data gathering is now much more straightforward, with statistics and tariff changes coming direct from and to SM's data centre.

The addition of GPRS modems to the parking machines also opens up a number of potential applications for future development, including using micropayments via mobile phone to pay for parking, and taxi-ordering services at the push of a button to name just two.

"We may acquire another package, to use with other services within SM - we are studying vehicle tracking using the same concept; the main difference is the mobility," says Khallouf of another potential application. "We are also looking at micropayments from mobile phones as a future service - it is there in the pipeline."

The project has been a learning curve for Etisalat too - the company has done similar smaller projects before, but nothing on the size of the Sharjah project, and it is keen to leverage the experience as much as possible. The company has been holding weekly meetings to discuss the project and look at potential ways to develop the GPRS service, such as SMS micropayments and other interactive projects.

Project details

Who?

Sharjah Municipality

What?

GPRS service from Etisalat

When?

2006-2007

Why?

To exchange data remotely with up to 860 parking machines across the Emirate, eliminating machine-to-machine visits by a technician. Offers increased flexibility and ease of use and maintenance.


“The main challenge was to get the GPRS working; it took us two months to tweak the configuration.”


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