Special Reports

Digitizing the Motorways in Pakistan

FWO continues its legacy of providing quality road infrastructure all over the country. With digitization of motorways, FWO has also remained steadfast in creating hassle-free traffic flow and greater revenue collection.

Frontier Works Organization (FWO) identified the need to implement Information Technology (IT) System in 2009 and established an IT Cell for the provision of functional support to the organization. The scope of IT Cell was enhanced with the Build, Operate and Transfer (BOT) project of Lahore-Sheikhupura-Faisalabad (LSF) Dual Carriageway and an indigenous development of Electronic Toll and Traffic Management (ETTM) software for toll collection. The Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag-based ETTM system was deployed on LSF in 2011. The same was upgraded to be deployed at Islamabad-Lahore Motorway in 2016 and rebranded as M-Tag. The M-Tag based ETTM was further enhanced and successively deployed on other BOT motorways as well. 
The scope of IT has been amplified since 2009. However, human resource and system capacity, particularly in line with the increasing scope of motorways was not adequately augmented. This resulted into operational inefficiencies to support the magnified business scope. Furthermore, it was a necessity to provide traffic and road related systems including software, network, power, surveillance for traffic monitoring, management and safety besides toll. 
FWO not only addressed the insufficiencies, but also applied immediate and long-term corrective measures to attract stakeholders to rely on FWO in the field of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) business for road infrastructure.
Challenges: System and Operational Review
In the process of system and operational review, numerous issues were identified and subsequently addressed. The gist of associated issues, challenges and inadequacies is as under:
ETTM. The application was assessed and found that its built was obsolete and required redesigning to address the operational challenges. The use of this outdated software and non-compliance to security standards exposed the system to data breaches and loss of revenue. 
Communication Network. An application without a robust communication network cannot perform. Optimization and redesigning of the network was essentially required with new contracts. Optical Fiber Cable (OFC) infrastructure, already owned by FWO, was linear, isolated and not interconnected, requiring third party bandwidth hiring to connect with the data center at FWO Headquarters.

Power Infrastructure. The system’s operationalization is highly dependent on stable power and managed backup. IT equipment was prone to damage due to power fluctuations. Power stabilization was essentially required through proper power management plan.
Intelligent Traffic Management System. As per the contractual obligations, a CCTV surveillance system was deployed in the category of Intelligent Traffic Management at every 2 kilometers all along the motorway. This system was neither able to provide visibility at night, nor able to provide automated alerts in case of an emergency or accident. Key features of modern Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) were also non-existent, such as vehicle detection, automatic number plate recognition, speed detection, violation monitoring, and vehicle count, etc.

Network Operations Centre (NOC). Despite of the most critical nature of Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) operations, the concept of “round the clock monitoring” was non-existent. Hence, NOC was the only option for central monitoring, controlling and responsiveness for continued business efficiency.
Developments: Addressing Challenges
The issues and challenges were taken upfront and immediate stabilization of systems, subsequent innovation, new system design, deployment and hardware upgrades were undertaken. The main highlights of the updates are as follows:
ETC System 
▪  The old software had multiple issues. Software applications were revamped to address these challenges while making advancements, system upgrades and imparting new sensors in the tolling system. FWO indigenously developed, tested and deployed a state-of-the-art and modern ETC System based on Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), video tolling system combined with M-Tag and a QR Code.
▪  This newly-built system was first deployed on Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway (M-9) being the most difficult motorway owing to numerous open loops all along, directly affecting the performance of the new system. To mitigate all such challenges, several upgrades were made to the system to enhance the performance. These modifications have not only increased the toll collection and free flow of traffic, but also enabled to streamline operations, mitigate risks and handle setbacks effectively. After Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway (M-9), this system has been successfully deployed on Lahore-Sialkot Motorway (M-11) along with operator-less free flow of traffic through the toll lanes at entry and exit points.
Stabilization of Network Infrastructure
Wireless Network. ETC system becomes non-functional if the network connection fails or gets disrupted. Application performance and overall customer experience is based on the availability of network. To resolve communication challenges, overhaul of complete communication network infrastructure was needed. Incorporation of increased bandwidth, manageable Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and 24/7 monitoring at NOC was established. 
Fiberization Initiative. OFC infrastructure was essential for the upgradation of IT system on motorways. The initiative to deploy this system was evaluated against market potential. OFC infrastructure along the alignment of motorways will provide long-haul network for telecom and internet service providers in the future to capitalize on investment.
▪ Establishment of Centralized NOC. State-of-the-art NOC was established at FWO Headquarters for 24/7 monitoring, controlling and rectification of operational issues and challenges associated with ETC system on motorways. The advanced network monitoring software along with dashboards for application, network, sensors and power allows real time monitoring.
Stabilization/Upgradation of Power Infrastructure. Smooth IT operations demand stable and continuous power along with proper protection of IT equipment. In order to provide stable and continuous power, the following steps are being taken:
▪     Ensure smooth and stable power conditions.
▪  Ensure standard power protection and strong backups through generator sets. 
▪    Execution of solar power projects on motorways for continuous power, sustainability and clean and green energy.
▪  Remote monitoring of power infrastructure to ensure reliable power.
M-Tag Service Enhancement
Establishment of M-Tag Drive-through Centers. M-Tag centers on motorways were upgraded to M-Tag drive-through centers at all key locations. Few of the remaining M-Tag stations will be upgraded in phases.
M-Tag Mobile Application. Keeping in view the latest trends associated with digital transformation, M-Tag mobile application was developed and launched on all platforms (Apple iOS, Android and Huawei). So far, over 300,000 M-Tag users are successfully using M-Tag mobile application. 
▪  Operatorless Express Lanes (Entry and Exit). To pave the way towards automation in ETC System and improve commuter experience, operatorless express toll lanes have been introduced and made operational. M-Tag good balance commuters can easily pass through these operatorless express lanes without hassle within 5 seconds. 
Market Positioning: ETC, Fiberization and ITS
FWO created an opportunity of positioning ICT business in line with motorways related IT deployments. Furthermore, FWO has also been repositioned as OFC infrastructure provider, having a history of deploying over 15,000 kilometers of OFC infrastructure for third parties.
▪    ETC System. Based on a new system and successful operations of the newly developed video tolling system, FWO enabled itself to make a business proposition to National Highway Authority (NHA) for standardization of ETC System coupled with extended operations and maintenance contract instead of yearly bidding on motorways.
▪  OFC Infrastructure Development: Fiberization. Identifying the market gap in long-haul fiberization and keeping in view the vision of standardization of ETC system, FWO is now working on fiberization of federally administered motorways in collaboration with NHA and a feasibility study is also being carried out for other roads in collaboration with Capital Development Authority (CDA).
▪  ITS. Pakistan lacks state-of-the-art ITS addressing the challenges of means to intelligently manage Pakistan’s unique vehicle population, non-standard number plates and traffic commuters’ behavior. FWO has successfully completed the proof-of-concept deployed and tested at Chakri Interchange on Lahore-Islamabad Motorway (M-2). ITS system is currently being deployed on Lahore-Sialkot Motorway (M-11) with its centralized monitoring and management platform configured in NOC at FWO Headquarters. Efforts are being undertaken to fine-tune the system to enhance its performance and develop user specific incident management and reporting dashboards. Furthermore, FWO is in the process of developing and designing the system in collaboration with National Highway and Motorway Police (NH&MP) and National Radio and Telecommunication Corporation (NTRC). This system will be replicated on other motorways and like ETC, FWO will standardize ITS for all motorways in Pakistan to address the requirements of all stakeholders. This system constitutes essential key features of modern ITS systems such as:
▪    Speed detection
▪    Vehicle detection
▪    Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR)
▪    Violation detection
▪    Vehicle count
Essential Features of ITS System
Partnerships with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM).
FWO has established key partnerships with international principals, OEMs and key service providers across the world and within Pakistan with the aim to acquire upgraded equipment, licenses, integration and development services at discounted rates with priority delivery times. Some key partnerships include Dell Technologies, Dahua Technologies, AxxonSoft, Huawei technologies, H3C technologies and CyberNet, etc.
Increase in Toll Revenue
FWO has significantly updated and enhanced the overall ETTM system, which has directly contributed to an increase in the toll revenue, directly benefiting government treasury. FWO is looking forward to taking the ETC System to the next level and establishing a footprint in the local and international market. 
Accomplishments and Targets
FWO aims to achieve the following goals while cutting down its own operational expenses from 2.5% to 1% of the toll revenue by the end of year 2023 and desires to establish the following goals:
▪  Enable FWO further to be the pioneer in standardizing ANPR based, M-Tag enabled ETC System for motorways in Pakistan.
▪ Becoming the standard for tolling and Operations and Maintenance (O&M) on the motorways; interacting with NHA for transforming tolling operations and technical service providers contracting criteria.
▪ Developing a standardized, homogenized yet scalable ITS with the patronage of NHA and NH&MP by integrating e-ticketing and e-chalan for driving violations.
▪ Developing M-Tag as a service and enabling it to become a comprehensive system, not only for motorways, but also for national and provincial highways.
A landmark achievement has recently been achieved where FWO and NHA signed an agreement on June 27, 2022 for setting up cashless tolling operations on Islamabad-Peshawar (M-1), Lahore-Abdul Hakeem (M-3), Faisalabad-Gojra (M-4), Sukkur-Multan (M-5), Hakla-D. I. Khan (M-14) and Hazara Motorways (E-35). The agreement consists of M-Tag based video tolling, including installation of ETC System and provision of multiple services.

The writer is an Islamabad based tech-enthusiast and General Manager at One Network Private Limited. Twitter: @fatimaanilapk
E-mail: [email protected]

Read 107 times