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The Green Sheet Online Edition

September 28, 2009 • Issue 09:09:02

A new drive for prepaid

What generates the most revenue: professional baseball, shoes or parking? Major League Baseball made about $6 billion in 2007. The shoe industry accounts for approximately $25 billion annually. And parking? Jim Shanahan, Chief Executive Officer at Maverick Network Solutions Inc., said it's a $70 billion a year business.

"When you think about all the people every day who pay for parking, you can sort of see that it is a huge business," he said. "But it's certainly not one that you think about."

MNS, a Wilmington, Del.-based ISO that specializes in private-label debit card processing for retailers, is making its first foray into the lucrative parking industry by partnering with ePark Systems Inc. for in-vehicle payments (IVP). Shanahan said Maverick manages the Web-based user interface and processes the payments for ePark Systems. The service centers on the iPark, a transponder that mounts on the dashboard of a car. Drivers purchase the device online or from their local Department of Motor Vehicles office, and they buy parking minutes online, much like how cell phone users buy prepaid phone minutes, Shanahan said.

Hans Hawrysz, CEO of ePark Systems, said the minutes come in the form of eight-digit serial codes that drivers manually enter into the iPark. Its operating system, ParkNet+, was co-designed by Maverick and ePark Systems and handles all the account and transaction information on the device. So, instead of a card, the iPark itself is the stored-value instrument, Hawrysz said.

When drivers park, they punch into the device the zone designation marked on the nearest meter. Then they press a button on the iPark that starts the device's internal meter, which tracks how long vehicles are parked. When parking enforcement officers make their rounds, they see that the iPark inside the car is turned on and do not issue tickets.

When parking minutes are low, drivers top off (reload) their accounts online by purchasing new serial numbers, which they then input on the iPark for more minutes. Hawrysz said the devices cannot be loaded wirelessly, but that functionality will be built into future models.

All coined out

Among the U.S. cities that have signed up for the service are Arlington, Texas; Manchester and Portsmouth, N.H.; and Miami Beach, Fla. The iPark is cost effective for municipalities in several ways. Coin-operated meters must be serviced and the coins from them collected on a routine basis, which takes time, money and manpower, Shanahan said. If cities want to retrofit the meters to accept smart card payments, the process is a sizeable investment.

If cities want to reduce or eliminate the meters for centrally placed "pay and display" machines, each machine can cost as much as $20,000, and for a large city, that could mean several million dollars, Shanahan said. In addition, those machines come with high transaction fees for credit card payments, Hawrysz noted.

The iPark is cheap in comparison, with "very little investment to get up and running," Shanahan said. "It's all sort of pay by the drink."

Getting connected

iPark, which had its initial pilots in 2005, has been through two versions of both the device and the software platform. It is being marketed to cities as a revenue generator and a way to deliver better customer service.

Cities can set their own pricing structures. "You can have different payment schedules based on time of day and day of week, and you can flex that over time and charge differently so you can maximize your revenue," Shanahan said.

Furthermore, cities have become increasingly aware of the real estate value of municipal parking, Hawrysz noted. With iPark, cities can charge more for parking closer to mass transit or premier businesses, for example.

Another advantage to iPark is reporting. Hawrysz said with old metering systems, cities had "no understanding of who parks when, where and how." But, with iPark, parking session data can be uploaded when the device is plugged into a computer via a universal serial bus connection. Version 2.0 of iPark allows for the automatic upload of that data when it connects to a wireless network or hotspot.

That data can be used by municipalities to understand driver - and hence consumer - behavior.

As for the customer care aspect, it is about saving consumers money. Breakage rates on coin-operated meters is high, Shanahan explained.

For example, a person may have to put 50 cents into a meter for an hour's worth of parking even if the person only needs to use 45 minutes. This might lead to the driver opting to park elsewhere. "If you're getting less people using [meters] because they are using the iPark, then your breakage rate will be less," he said.

Security is also an issue. Drivers using iPark don't have to leave the safety of their cars, especially late at night when muggings and car jackings are more prevalent, to pay for parking, Hawrysz said. Hawrysz believes the iPark is at the forefront of the "connected car" concept, which envisions the automobile as a consumer ecosystem unto itself. Cars of today and future models will have built-in wireless connections to allow for such things as Internet-enabled street maps, quick service restaurant ordering and parking, Hawrysz said.

For more stories from SellingPrepaid E-Magazine, as well as breaking news and forums devoted to the prepaid sphere, please visit greensheet.com. end of article

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