First publishedin ITS International
Many of the 'new' issues faced by road tolling were addressed by the cellular communications industry decades agoPicture: © Motorola Mobility, Inc., Legacy Archives Collection. Reproduced with permission.
For more than 20 years prior to joining the ITS industry, Mike Payne of Idris, part of Federal Signal Technologies, worked for Vodafone - the world's biggest mobile operator. Here, he considers how the road tolling sector can grow and learn from the cellular industry
The global cellphone has been one of the most successful collaborative technology projects in the last 30 years. Mobile phone technology developed throughout the 20th century with the first public service in the early 70s. This was followed by the first cellular system, analogue at that stage, in the USA in 1983, followed closely by Vodafone
in the UK less than a year later. But whilst these systems offered wide-area service within the network users belonged to, and even had a degree of similarity in their specifications, there was no concept of network interoperability or 'roaming'.
In 1982, a group was formed lobbying for a fully interoperable cellular system across Europe. This group called itself Groupe Special Mobile - or GSM - and it finally got European Union
(EU) approval in 1988. This was key, because the way the EU works is that once something has been formally approved, it is mandated across the Member States. In parallel, the standards body in Europe - the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, or ETSI - had worked through all the specifications ready to go, but with a digital system and many added features.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first GSM call, made by Telecom Finland's Radiolinja. A year later, the world's first roaming call was made between Radiolinja and Vodafone
In the two decades since then GSM has become global, with more than 600 networks and 5 billion users. That could not have happened without solid standards, political support, a good business case and customer demand.
Similarities and differences
There are a lot of similarities between the tolling and cellular industries. Both are comprised of a large number of individual 'network operators' (or toll road authorities), both have customers who have a propensity to travel outside their 'home network' and both sell a variable price, transaction-based service.
There has been much talk about tolling interoperability over the last few years, and the IBTTA
has a series of subcommittees seeking to define it, so we can reasonably assume that our industry believes interoperability is both necessary and justifiable. So let's look at some of the experiences from the cellular world, from defining the system to commercial relationships and see if they might apply.
The first thing you have to do when a cellular user is roaming is to identify and validate them. Validation - or authentication, as the cellular industry calls it - is essential to permit use of the service and minimise fraud. This is not necessary in a gated toll system, of course - if they haven't paid, you don't let 'em out - but once you have an open road you need authentication in order to be sure you'll get your money. The key question is: 'How confident are you that you can track down that customer to pay?' In GSM, this was achieved by the use of a very secure smartcard in the phone - the Subscriber Identity Module, or SIM - and end-to-end, real-time validation right back to the home network. The analogy with Open Road Tolling comes with the authenticity of a RFID tag or the ability to accurately identify the customer from his or her license plate.
What this leads me to ask is: should toll road authorities perform real-time validation of a tag back to the tag's 'home' authority, and is there a reliable database for real-time license plate look-up? Real-time validation means that only one network - the home network - needs to maintain an up-to-date register of its customers. A centralised license plate database overcomes the difficulties of dealing with sometimes-fragile DMV databases.
Of course, there is one fundamental difference between phone networks and open roads: you can deny service to a phone but you can't stop a car very easily - unless you do what Germany's Toll Collect
does and chase the driver down the road. So I accept this is a limitation.
The next thing you need for interoperability is to get the billing record back to the home network and perform reconciliation. In GSM, this was done by creating a standard for call records, called Transferred Account Procedure, or TAP.
It was realised early on that the quicker you got these records back to the home network, the less fraud took place, so very soon operators began transferring files overnight or even more often.
Again, I recognise there is a difference here. You have some road users who do not have an account, so they may be considered to be roaming from an unknown network, which brings us back to the real-time license plate database for billing... and cellular networks don't have violators.