Diplomatic Pouch / May 5, 2011
By Larry Luxner
From the tiny country that gave the world Skype comes another 21st-century innovation: technology that allows you to feed your parking meter via cellphone.
In Estonia — a Baltic nation famous for medieval castles and winter sports — there are nearly twice as many mobile phones in service as inhabitants, giving it a mobile penetration rate of 188 percent, one of the world’s highest. But with only 1.3 million people, the market for value-added services is limited.
No surprise, then, that the former Soviet republic is eager to share its expertise abroad. And when it comes to pay-by-cell parking, it happens that Maryland’s Montgomery County is now the largest U.S. customer for Estonia’s technology.
The transatlantic partnership was unveiled Mar. 31, at a rain-soaked press conference on the roof of a parking garage in downtown Bethesda.
Under a constant drizzle and gloomy skies, Krista A. Tassa — president of the Estonian-American Chamber of Commerce & Industry — showed off the new technology before an audience that included County Executive Isiah Leggett; Viljar Lubi, economic counselor at the Estonian Embassy in Washington; officials of the Maryland Department of Transportation and local journalists.
To use pay-by-cell, she explained, first-time patrons register for the program once by going online to www.mc.goparknow.com or by calling (301) 830-7074. Parkers set up an account, indicating which credit card will be used to pay for parking.
Step-by-step instructions and phone/text prompts walk the user through what to do next. The patron then receives voice and text messages confirming the start of the parking session. A 35-cent transaction fee is added to the cost of parking — a relative pittance given the convenience it offers.
“Pay-by-cell will make it easier for our citizens to enjoy Bethesda and other areas of our county,” said Roger Berliner, vice-president of the Montgomery County Council. “You will no longer have to worry about getting a ticket because now you can simploy phone it in. Resident-friendly improvements like this make Montgomery County an even better place to live and enjoy.”
In fact, cellphones can now be used to pay for parking at 5,250 meters in Bethesda. By summer, the program will be expanded to include meters in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Montgomery Hills and North Bethesda — for a total of 11,000 parking meters. That’ll make it the biggest program of its kind in the United States, putting it even ahead of Miami, which currently has 6,000 pay-by-cell meters.
“Since launching the pilot in this very garage more than a year ago, thousands of residents, workers and visitors have tried the service,” said Tassa, noting that 11,500 customers registered to participate in the pilot program, using their cellphones for about 110,000 parking sessions.
Tassa is also the owner of MobileNOW! LLC, the North American distributor of pay-by-cell technology originally developed by Estonia’s NOW! Innovations Ltd. She predicted that Montgomery County will rapidly achieve one of the highest adoption rates for cellphone parking in the country.
“This technology, with its international roots, fits well with the county’s international nature, having first been launched in tech-savvy Estonia, whose capital, Tallinn, coincidentally enjoys a strong sister-city relationshp with Annapolis, Md.,” she said.
Kalju Rüütli, vice-president of product development at NOW! Innovations, says his startup employs 10 people in Tallinn.
“Part of the reason Skype was developed in Estonia is that we’re technologically savvy and adapt really quickly,” Ruutli told the Pouch. “But we’re also lazy, so we look for ways to reduce the work. If I can do it from mobile, it’s much easier.”
Rüütli said parking your car should be the easiest thing in the world — without having to fumble for spare change.
“We must move parking into the digital era. Right now, it’s analog,” he said. “You put in coins, and the system can’t differentiate whether you’re elderly or disabled, or whether you’re entitled to discounts. But with this technology, we can add new levels of service. The city can now differentiate you as a customer.”
The new parking system offers many conveniences. Those who use pay-by-cell will get a text message reminder that their parking time is about to expire. Patrons can extend parking time remotely and view transactions online. They can also stop a parking session upon returning to their vehicle, so they only pay for the parking time they’ve actually used.
Tassa said her company’s technology is now present in seven foreign countries: Estonia, Belgium, Great Britain, Macedonia, Slovenia, Spain and Ukraine. Negotiations are also underway to implement pay-by-cell in Canada.
“Right now, cellphone penetration is only 1 percent of the parking market in the U.S., so the potential is huge. The parking industry is slow to accept this, but once they do, it happens very quickly,” she said. “Cellphone parking is becoming the rule rather than the exception. It’s really becoming the norm.”