The 511 Alliance: A Nationwide Traveler Information System Gets Rolling

By Joe Francica

On May 21st of this years, PBS&J, SmartRoute Systems/Westwood One (SRS), Tele Atlas North American and Meteorlogix announced the formation of a national alliance to provide 511 traveler information telephone services to state and local agencies.According to the press release issued that day, "the companies are part of the 511 Deployment Coalition, a consortium of government agencies and private companies (AASHTO, APTA, ITS America and the U.S.Department of Transportation) working to bring 511 services to U.S.markets." What is 511? 511 is similar in approach to the existing emergency number, 911, except that its intended use is for nationwide traveler information.Directions Magazine queried the various members to get a better understanding of how the system works, how it be deployed, and how it will be used.

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1.Please briefly explain the 511 system with respect to understanding a caller's location. How does it work currently? What information is provided to the traveler?
Current and planned 511 systems do not know callers' locations. Calls are routed by phone companies to the proper 511 system based on a caller's telephone access point, but that access point information is not passed to the 511 system. When first connected, callers request information for whatever region and/or road they wish. They may even opt to be switched to another 511 system in another region if they plan to drive out of their current region and want to know traffic conditions within their destination region. Users select the information they want from voice menus by spoken commands and/or touch-tone key commands. They generally have choices of information about transit, traffic, severe weather alerts, general weather conditions, weather-related travel delays , planned roadwork, planned events, etc. If they choose traffic, then they have choices of regions (e.g., East Bay) and/or roads (e.g., I-880). They then receive voice descriptions of the traffic conditions (crashes, congestion, roadwork, etc.) on I-880. The 511 Alliance can provide a fully automatic Interactive Voice Response system that provides traffic information using concatenated speech and/or text to speech.

2.511 is a telephone-based system. Can you explain what basic services will be offered to state and local agencies through this 511 Alliance of companies? With each company offering a basic component (traffic, digital data, weather, and project management), it appears that the alliance is
offering to build a Traffic Management center for public safety departments. True?
The 511 Alliance can provide a remotely hosted service for a DOT using existing Westwood One traffic information that requires no DOT Traffic Management Center (TMC) nor any traffic information content from that DOT. Or, if the DOT has a TMC and its own content, the 511 Alliance can incorporate the DOT's content either into a 511 Alliance system installed in the TMC or into a remotely-hosted, 511 Alliance system at some other location. In either case, the DOT's information can be supplemented and enhanced with existing Westwood One information and by Westwood One operators. In addition the DOT will receive statewide weather-alerting capabilities, as well as weather-related travel delays from Meteorlogix. As with traffic, if the DOT has an existing RWIS (road weather information system) in place, Meteorlogix can incorporate that data into the weather information they provide. This is extremely important to rural ITS, where there is generally little traffic information available.

Our goal is to meet the DOT customers' specific requirements on a very rapid schedule by making maximum use of existing 511 Alliance products and services. The modular nature of the 511 Alliance's products and services allows us to quickly tailor a system and service that meets the customers' requirements with state-of-the-art features and content and at low cost for the value received.

3.Is this alliance of companies a precursor to offering wireless location services to travelers (or how does it work currently with cellular calls)? Is there a graphical or geographical representation of the traveler information sent to cell phones or is the information in text form only?
Currently, 511 information is delivered primarily as voice telephony. While location-based services could be provided by 511 systems in the future, that is not a currently planned feature. Cell phone geolocation services are not yet widely available in the U.S.and will initially be deployed to meet the E911 FCC mandate. E911 and 511 will be entirely separate and independent services.

4.This alliance targets local governments but is there an intention by the participating companies to provide service directly to consumers or through cellular telecommunication carriers?
From a business perspective, DOTs are the only realistic customers for 511 systems and services. Attempts to cover the costs of traveler information telephone systems with consumer fees or with advertising or sponsorships have failed in the past, and we do not see that changing in the future. That's not to say that some revenues cannot be generated, but we never expect those revenues to cover the costs of the systems. The DOTs must pay the majority of the costs if they want sustainable 511 systems. There already are traveler information services available through some wireless carriers. We expect those services to be complementary to 511 services in the future by offering premium personalized services included as part of cellular subscribers regular monthly fees. The 511 Alliance is going after DOT customers, not wireless carriers.

5.What is the long-range vision of the 511 Alliance? What services or products will be offered?
The 511 Alliance was formed to provide near-term, quick-response, feature-rich 511 solutions for DOTs that want to deploy new 511 systems and for DOTs that want to replace outmoded existing systems. The Alliance offerings will evolve with new technologies and with new customer requirements possibly to include automated location-based traveler information, route-specific travel times, active weather alerting based on the location of the traveler, and other information content. But at the moment we are focusing on meeting today's needs of today's customers. The National 511 Deployment Coalition has established clear near-term implementation guidelines for 511 systems which most systems in operation today have yet to meet. The 511 Alliance's mix of available content, proven ability to integrate government-supplied and private content, and off-the-shelf telephone systems allows us to meet the guidelines in any part of the country from the start.

6.What business catalysts must be present in order for the market for direct traveler information to become a viable consumer service?
Continuous government funding to acquire and to operate 511 systems is essential to make 511 a viable consumer service. As intimated in 4.above, we don't anticipate that such systems will ever be commercially self-supported by consumers, advertising, or any similar business model.


Published Thursday, July 24th, 2003

Written by Joe Francica



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