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Has time expired for coin-operated meters?

With cell phones and wireless meters, IBM aims to cash in on a $26 billion industry. CNBC’s Jim Goldman reports.
/ Source: CNBC

Gary Farrall is a college student’s worst nightmare. As the parking enforcement supervisor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he oversees ten parking officers who write as many as 400 tickets each day.

But when it comes to coin-operated parking meters, Farrall is no fan: “The parking meter is over with,” he says. Over with because drivers now have a way to fight back; a way to beat Gary to the punch by paying their parking meters using a cell phone.

UCSB is the first place in the nation to replace conventional, coin-operated parking meters with a wireless, electronic pay-parking system called Intellipay developed by tech giant IBM.

You park your car, make note of the space and call a toll free number. Then you give your credit card number and you’re good to go.

When the meter’s about to expire, the meter will call you, giving you the chance to feed it by credit card before Gary and his gang get a chance to tag you. But you have to be quick: Gary gets the phone call from the meter at the same time you do.

And Gary and his gang get a head start in the parking lot — they can look at their handhelds and know exactly which parking lots haven’t paid up.

The UCSB system has seen significant success, increasing university parking revenue by 37 percent and paying for itself in just two years.

Indeed, paid parking in the United States is big business, and Big Blue is seeing big green when it comes to the parking lots and parking spaces of the future.

“Parking is a $26 billion industry — it’s huge,” says Dane Dixon, business development manager in IBM's Pervasive Technology sector. Parking is big enough, in fact, to attract IBM, the company providing the software building blocks, and two Canadian firms. They’re working to build that better mousetrap, transforming an industry that hasn’t really seen much change.

These new “smart” parking lots have started off with lots at the University of California Santa Barbara. Now there are 100,000 spaces in 20 regions nationwide relying on the system, but with over 100 million paid parking spaces, the opportunity is massive.

“When a business is that huge it becomes tremendous potential, and therefore it gets your attention,” notes IBM’s Dixon.

Students seem to be embracing the idea: “I can sleep in an extra ten minutes and pay for my parking on the way to school — that’s great,” said Jonathan Su, a UCSB senior.

And as IBM positions itself as a technology and services goliath, something as mundane as a parking space could drive the company’s fortunes well into the future.

But it doesn’t stop at parking meter. The same kind of wireless technology will soon be used to tell students about available washing machines and also, using global positioning systems, where the nearest available parking space is relative to their vehicle’s location. So you’ll no longer waste time and gasoline looking for a parking space — your cell phone will tell you instead.