511 Case Studies
Shenandoah Valley, Virginia
On July 21, 2000, the Federal Communications Commission assigned the 511 abbreviated dialing code on a national basis for the provision of transportation information. Further, the FCC ruling has left it to state and local transportation agencies, telecommunications carriers and regulators to determine the appropriate courses of action to make these services available. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Joint Program Office is sponsoring an effort to document the progress of early implementers of 511 services for the benefit of the entire transportation community.
This case study focuses on the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia and its implementation of rural/corridor 511 services. As is evident in reading this document, the implementation is a work in progress. The intention is to concisely provide a current "snapshot" of the progress.
The principal point of contact for this case study is Todd Kell of the Virginia Department of Transportation (firstname.lastname@example.org or 804/786-2451). The principal author of this case study is Rick Schuman of PBS&J (email@example.com or 407/647-7275).
Multiple documents and web sites have been referenced in this case study. To the extent possible, links are provided to these documents and sites. This and other 511 case studies are located athttp://www.its.dot.gov/511/511.htm.
This document contains five sections:
- History / Perspective - Pre-511
- Institutional Background in Virginia
- 511 Plans / Vision
- Ongoing Activities
- Lessons Learned
511 service will be a primary element of the "Travel Shenandoah" program, a real-time traffic, traveler services, and tourism information service for Virginia's I-81 Corridor. Travel Shenandoah is provided as a cooperative venture of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) and the Shenandoah Telecommunications Company (SHENTEL), under the sponsorship of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC). Additional partners include the Virginia State Police and the Shenandoah National Park.
Travel Shenandoah went live on April 26, 2000. It is the first in what is planned to be a statewide family of similar services. The Travel Shenandoah service covers a 325-mile long section of the I-81 corridor in Virginia, from the West Virginia state line south to the Tennessee state line, the entire length of Skyline Drive, and short sections of I-64, I-66, and I-77 (see Figure 1). Travelers can access traffic alerts, construction alerts, weather forecasts, hotels, food, events, and more through the Travel Shenandoah service. This information is obtained through various project partners: VDOT, the Virginia State Police (VSP), local and state Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs), and local phone books. VTTI collects the information, organizes it in a central clearinghouse and disseminates the information to the public. SHENTEL provides essential support to the service through awareness marketing and the sale of advertisements and placement on the website and phone service. The revenues generated from the sales help to ease the cost to VDOT of supporting Travel Shenandoah.
In its current form, information is available from Travel Shenandoah 24 hours a day, 7 days a week via:
- The Internet (www.travelshenandoah.com)
- Voice Actuated Mobile and Landline Telephone (1-800-578-4111)
- Cable Television (SHENTEL Cable TV)
The service is designed to meet the needs of several audiences:
- Travelers, both before they set out and while traveling in their vehicles
- Tourists planning a trip and visitors staying in the area
- Travelers needing non-life threatening emergency assistance (e.g., dentist or veterinarian)
- Local residents
- Local businesses offering goods and services to the traveling public
- Government agencies responsible for providing safe and convenient travel conditions
The basic Travel Shenandoah service is free to users. The only exceptions being subscriptions to specialized services aimed at commercial businesses and other organizations. Travel Shenandoah was developed as an ITS demonstration project, funded by VDOT under the Department's Smart Travel program. Both SHENTEL and VTTI have made significant additional financial and in-kind contributions. The future intent is that the service will be financially self-supporting. The on-going operating costs will be supported by a mix of revenues, including:
- Limited Subscriptions
- Mobile Telephone 'Roaming' Charges
- Service Sponsorship(s)
- Tailored Information Services
- Sale of Data
- Governmental 'Fees for Service'
To make this business model successful, SHENTEL has employed a sales staff of three full time employees, under the management of a full time project manager. This staff works to sell advertisements on the phone system (soon to be sold as advertisements on 511) as part of a series of sales packages involving both the website and the phone system. All revenue generated from sale activity will flow back to SHENTEL to recover sunk costs in investments in initial infrastructure needs. After all costs are recovered the revenue will flow to the Traveler Information program, helping to support the ongoing costs of operations and to alleviate VDOT's financial obligations.
(It is important to note that I-81 is a major commercial vehicle corridor, with over 50% of the average daily traffic.)
This section describes the transportation and telecommunications institutional structures in western Virginia.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is responsible for building, maintaining and operating the state's roads, bridges and tunnels. And, through the Commonwealth Transportation Board, it also provides funding for airports, seaports, rail and public transportation. With nearly 57,000 miles, Virginia has the third largest state-maintained highway system in the country, just behind North Carolina and Texas. Slightly more than 10,000 additional miles of roads are maintained by cities and towns (and two counties) with the help of state funds. Thus VDOT is the principal highway operator in Virginia. All roads monitored in Travel Shenandoah are VDOT owned and operated.
There are many modest sized transit agencies operating in western Virginian, including:
- Big Stone Gap--Mountain Empire Older Citizens (Mountain Empire Transit, MET)
- Blacksburg--Blacksburg Transit
- Bluefield--Graham Transit
- Fishersville--Coordinated Area Transportation Services (CATS)
- Harrisonburg--Harrisonburg Public Transit (HPT)
- Independence--Grayson County Public Transit (GAIN)
- Marion--District III Governmental Cooperative (D3GC)
- Pulaski--New River Valley Senior Services (NRVSS)
- Winchester--Winchester Transit
- Wytheville--Wytheville Transit System (WTS)
There are two metropolitan planning organization in western Virginia, the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission and the Bristol (Tennessee) MPO.
Within the I-81 Corridor, there are 12 incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs), 9 competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) and 14 wireless carriers. While SHENTEL operates as an ILEC in a single county in the corridor and as a wireless carrier in parts of the corridor, as these numbers show, many carriers must be coordinated with to provide 511 service corridor-wide.
Virginia's State Corporation Commission (SCC) regulates wireline telecommunications throughout the Commonwealth. An independent agency, with three commissioners, the SCC's authority encompasses utilities, insurance, state-chartered financial institutions, securities, retail franchising, and railroads. The Division of Communications within the SCC assists the commissioners in performing its regulatory role in this area.
By using a simple, easy to remember telephone number, the 511 service will allow VDOT and its partners to deliver traveler information to more people than ever before. The purpose of the 511 service is to provide as much information to the traveling public as possible regarding the situations they may encounter along their journey, and the opportunities they may have as they travel across the Commonwealth.
VDOT believes the service will be a region-based one, which means that when a traveler dials 511 while in an area with an Advanced Traveler Information System (ATIS), he or she will receive information on that particular area. Where available, the service will contain transit information. Currently, VDOT has three areas covered by an ATIS, each in various stages of development and deployment. These areas are Washington, DC metro area, the I-81 corridor and the Hampton Roads area.
VDOT plans to implement two 511 demonstration projects (urban and rural) to learn many of the unknowns about 511 services through real world experience. Each of the demonstration projects will be operated for a minimum of one year to assist VDOT in determining the best course of action(s) to take when implementing 511 on a larger scale (statewide) and in more complex metropolitan areas (Washington, DC).
Should the Travel Shenandoah service prove to be a viable, self-sustaining venture for VDOT's private partners, it is likely that the same general format and organizational structure would be repeated throughout the state in predominantly non-urban areas through a program called Travel Virginia (as outlined in the Travel Virginia Final Report, October 6, 2000, http://www.paragoncom.com/ITS/papers.htm). These non-urban advanced traveler information systems, in conjunction with the existing services, would be the basis for a statewide, region-focused 511 service.
Still to be determined is when a traveler dials 511 from anywhere else in the state (outside of the above mentioned ATIS coverage areas), if he or she will be connected to the statewide system. In its current form, VDOT's Highway Helpline (1-800-367-ROAD) primarily offers information during inclement weather and generally reports on the condition of VDOT managed roadways only.
The Travel Shenandoah partners intend to have 511 fully operational in February 2002. This section describes events of the recent past and near future to illustrate the steps necessary initiate a 511 service. The activities are categorized into four areas:
In an August 2000, VDOT sent a letter to SCC stating that VDOT would like to be the lead agency in delivering a 511 service for the Commonwealth of Virginia. In May 2001, the SCC notified VDOT that, based on meetings with VDOT staff and through their research, they determined that the SCC:
"...by statute, has no jurisdiction over the telecommunications services provided to state agencies. Therefore, we believe no action from the SCC is required for the Virginia Department of Transportation to seek the 511 code from both wireless and wireline carriers, and to coordinate implementing the service in Virginia."
The SCC also stated that:
"The FCC's order further allows for state public utilities commissions to exercise jurisdiction over this code '...to the extent necessary to ensure that carriers comply with transportation agencies' requests to deploy 511 expeditiously.' To that end, we will be happy to assist in any way we can to help implement this worthwhile service in Virginia."
In short, the SCC is taking a "hands-off" approach and allowing VDOT to work directly with the telecommunications industry. The SCC is not requiring VDOT to apply for the 511 dialing code.
In the current regulatory environment, wireline (or landline) providers are compelled by the FCC to activate a switch for 511, but are given no guidelines as to how, or if, they may charge the associated organization for that service. SHENTEL has leveraged their understanding of the telecommunications industry to overcome these potential obstacles.
Throughout conversations with the carriers, SHENTEL was informed that most carriers were glad to offer their support for the project without any cost. However, a few wireline carriers have expressed that they will either file a tariff (contract), charge a one time charge to implement the switch, or charge a recurring monthly use charge for their switching. The primary companies that expressed their desire to charge were mainly national carriers. A concern that cannot be overlooked is that all carriers that have not filed for a tariff can change their agreement at anytime.
In addition to the wireline carrier charge to SHENTEL for the switching, the wireless carriers have expressed that they may, and can, charge the end user for roaming in their area in the form of a flat fee for each call or a per minute charge for that specific call depending on how the carrier interprets to wireless call. There are no rules from the FCC or SCC governing this situation.
As this case study is published, coordination with carriers was ongoing, with most carriers having already implemented 511 routing. Given the uncertainty of the cost structure for call routing by some carriers, the project has estimated $80,000 in annual costs to support call routing. This figure, and whether costs will be one-time or on-going in nature, will be determined in the coming weeks as negotiations are completed with the remaining carriers.
Telephone System Upgrade
At its inception, Travel Shenandoah provided voice recognition technology to users over the phone by contracting with VODAVI, a proprietary voice recognition service provider. At that time, VODAVI provided the leading technology available in voice recognition. Since Travel Shenandoah's initial rollout, an unofficial traveler information industry standard, VoiceXML, has emerged. VoiceXML allows for agility and flexibility in programming to adapt to changes in the service being provided. Accordingly, Travel Shenandoah adopted this new technology using TellMe Networks Inc. as a platform. By using TellMe, VTTI eliminates the need for any investment in infrastructure and hardware to learn and run the system. Additionally, TellMe adds value through quality voice recognition leading to greater user satisfaction.
In addition to the infrastructure, TellMe provides the purchase of minutes and connection fees to carry the service. Because VTTI hosts the database, the source code, and all audio files, VTTI is able to modify the VoiceXML system internally without reliance on a third party or any payment of additional fees associated with that service. This creates a great advantage to Travel Shenandoah as it continually changes to provide improved service in expanded areas. The project has budgeted roughly $255,000 over two years to cover the telecommunications/system hosting costs for the project. In addition, VTTI and SHENTEL operations costs total roughly $200,000 annually.
The transition from the proprietary VODAVI system to the VoiceXML based system using TellMe as a platform is planned to be completed by January 2002. Currently, internal testing of a beta version is taking place and suggested modifications are being made. Once the 511 service is underway, VTTI will conduct ongoing usability testing and make improvements to the IVR system based on the results
Marketing and Public Relations
To make the business model a success, a strong 511 marketing program is necessary. Under the current structure for Travel Shenandoah, SHENTEL is involved in marketing through the following efforts:
- Distributed 250,000 Rack Cards Including Hotels, Motels and Restaurants along VA I-81, VA I-64; NC I-85; E. TENN I-81, I-75, I-40
- Materials placed at Virginia Welcome Centers and Rest Stops
- Travel Guide Advertisement
- Partnerships with Chambers of Commerce
These efforts will continue with the implementation of 511 using modified brochures and marketing materials advertising 511. Additionally, VDOT Public Affairs representatives are working to create awareness through press releases generating media interest.
Given that the service has expanded well beyond the Shenandoah Valley, a new, more comprehensive name for the service is under consideration. This new name, along with the 511 service will require future additional marketing and promotion activities.
VDOT is planning on deploying roughly 50 roadside signs along major interstates along the Travel Shenandoah coverage area. Discussions are still being held over the appearance of the signs to be placed along the interstates. The sign below is an example of what VDOT may deploy in Virginia.
Business Model Viability Review
As mentioned in the 511 Plans/Vision section, VDOT is still developing its statewide vision and plans as to what content will be available via 511, how the state will be subdivided and interconnected, who will develop, operate and maintain each service and what the basic business will be for each service. Travel Shenandoah differs from many other 511 and non-511 traveler information telephone systems in that it has a heavy focus on traveler services and seeks revenue from businesses that are highlighted on the service. VDOT and its partners recognize that there has been little evidence of success to date in developing revenue streams from traveler information services that can defray public investment in such services. The intention of all parties involved in Travel Shenandoah is to make the best effort possible to determine if a well developed and marketed 511 service can establish an environment where sufficient revenue can be derived from service "advertisers" to at minimum sustain the operations costs involved with traveler services information provision. The result of this effort will shape the future of 511 in the Travel Shenandoah program and well as in the rest of the Commonwealth.
The following are some of the key "lessons learned" by the implementers of 511 in western Virginia. They are not intended to be exhaustive, but rather cover some key items they have learned through their process that might be helpful to others.
- Customer feedback is a necessity to shape your service. During operation of the current phone service, VTTI conducted usability testing of the service, both with actual users and with phone system experts. Based on these findings, the user interface is being modified.
- Having a telecommunications carrier on your team is invaluable. SHENTEL has proven to be an invaluable partner in the Travel Shenandoah project. Their knowledge of the telecommunications carrier industry enabled them to expedite coordination with carriers over 511 call routing. Also, the SHENTEL marketing team leveraged experience in yellow pages and Internet advertising to develop and market plans for telephone service placements. These are a few examples of where having a carrier as a partner in delivering the service provides benefits.
- Be flexible to anticipate modifications that could be needed during system operations. The Travel Shenandoah partners have come to recognize that the service will continue to evolve and the project is structured to accommodate this evolution. Areas of likely evolution include: continual changes in the business listing in the traveler services portion of the service; changes in real-time data acquisition and integration; and updates to the user interface.