Feed the Meter (With your Phone)
By Justin Ried, Fri Jun 29 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Finnish operator Sonera delivers yet another creative way to pay for services with PARKIT. Don't these guys ever quit?

We've all long-since been wowed by the SMS/soda machine story that made headlines over a year ago, but you ain't seen nothin' yet. The seed of m-commerce that little idea planted has blossomed into a young tree of services all its own.

Sonera's Mobile Pay Group has come up with some pretty creative services as of late: Car washes, laundromat washes, shoeshines, fast food, photo booth shots, and even kiddie rides are all available at the push of a button. Just about anything you could possibly pour pocket change into has been sped-up, networked, and mobilized. And when parking in the Helsinki metropolitan area (which is always a treat) became available, I had to give it a spin.

The pilot program, dubbed PARKIT, began earlier this year and is organized by Payway Oy, a subsidiary of Sonera. After sending them some personal information with which to set up my account (license plate number, address, etc.), they sent out the registration package. Inside was a map of the parking zones (labeled either 1, 2 or 3), their corresponding phone numbers, and a little yellow pilot program sticker to be affixed to the windshield. I was in the club.

Spare some change?

The idea is simple enough: When you get downtown and park, you look at your program map to find out which number you call (different zones have different numbers because their meters are running at different times). Once you find the number, you call it up and your time begins. After you return to your car, you call the number again and your time ends. The exact amount of time you used is then charged to your mobile phone bill.

The benefits are pretty easy to see: No more scrambling for pocket change, no more running back to the meter to feed it again before your time runs out, and most importantly, no more tickets.

The city of Helsinki has so far been quite pleased with the results of the experiment, and authorized additional participant registration. Originally designed to accommodate 200 participants, the program is again taking applications.

Laying the foundation

Maija Laiho, of Payway's new user registration services, says "The main thing that attracts customers to the program is the convenience - that you always have your phone with you, and that you only pay for exactly the amount of time you use."

And what difficulties or complaints are people having? "Perhaps only that we couldn't fulfill the demand before," Laiho laughed.

Look for Payway to expand on its PARKIT services through the end of the year. And while there's no official word yet from city officials on whether or not they'll implement the system fully after the pilot ends, it's a pretty safe bet they will. It lays the foundation for what could eventually turn into some pretty revolutionary services.

Imagine what a live system for tracking city parking can finally offer once the meters are gone: You're on your way to an important meeting - rush hour traffic of course - and there's not a free spot to be seen. So you take out your phone, pull up www.hel.fi and check for the nearest available space. Or, have your phone alert you as soon as one within half of a kilometer becomes available.

Now getting that space before somebody else would still be tricky business, but you'd be better off than living on luck alone.

When Justin Ried 's not covering technology for TheFeature, he's surfing www.hel.fi, sending email, buying veggie burgers, movie tickets, playing games, paying for parking, and looking for other fun ways to use his mobile phone.