May 28 2009

Digitizing for Dollars

The Chicago Transit Authority deploys digital screens on trains and buses to bolster revenue and communicate with customers.

Last year, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley challenged the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) to find creative ways to finance subway station renovations and improve service. The mass transit system’s response: installing flat-panel digital screens on train stations and the sides of buses that will display advertisements and broadcast information, such as wait times or emergencies.

Featuring more than 1,500 flat-panel screens, the new digital advertising and communication system is expected to generate $101 million for the CTA in the next decade. The advertising revenue is significant because the authority has been socked by the economic slowdown and rising prices for fuel, power and other materials. The screens will also be fully integrated with the CTA Control Center and the city’s Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC), allowing transit officials to post rail and bus service information for customers as well as emergency information, which includes everything from AMBER Alerts to street closures caused by fires or traffic accidents.

The digital signage advertising market in North America will grow from $1.6 billion in 2008 to $2.5 billion by 2013, according to InfoTrends.

To do so, the transit authority partnered with New York advertising firm Titan Worldwide, which installs, manages and maintains the technology in exchange for a percentage of the advertising revenue. After successfully piloting the technology on one Chicago bus and train station this past fall and winter, Titan is in the process of installing LCD screens in 144 rail stations and LED screens on 100 buses throughout the city by the end of the year.

The CTA, which serves an average of 1.68 million riders a day during the workweek, is among the nation’s first transit systems to deploy digital displays throughout its train stations and buses. New York City is piloting a large LCD screen in Grand Central Station and has begun rolling out LED screens on city buses. And airports have installed digital signs, too. These deployments demonstrate the growing trend to deliver ads with animation, video and flashy graphics.

Digital signs provide advertisers with the ability to target ads based on time, location and demographics. In Chicago, for example, the CTA has equipped its buses with global positioning system (GPS) technology, allowing riders with their cell phones and personal digital assistants to go online to check for the locations and estimated arrival times for buses. Titan, in turn, can serve up advertising targeted to the demographics of the specific neighborhoods the buses are in.

And, unlike traditional static posters, digital displays allow the company to sell multiple ads on the same space and cycle through them. At rail stations, the displays will also serve as an informational resource to passengers, automatically providing news, sports and weather information along with regular updates on when the next train will arrive.

“There’s increased pressure to get more out of every dollar, and many see digital signage as the answer to advertisers’ prayers because it allows for very compelling media to be presented to highly targeted audiences,” says Lyle Bunn, a Toronto-based consultant to the digital signage industry.

How the Technology Works

Titan piloted the technology in one train station in Chicago and plans to have displays installed in 36 more stations by the end of the year and eventually in 144 stations throughout the city, says Aaron Higley, Titan’s director of digital operations. Each train platform will feature six 52-inch LCD screens and a 32-inch LCD at the turnstiles. Some locations will also feature a 57-inch Urban panel with an HD display on both sides positioned near the station entrance. The LED displays on the sides of buses, known as digital kings, are 1 inch thick, 12 feet long and 2 and a half feet tall.

Titan connects its bus LED screens through a secure cellular broadband network, while the LCD screens on train platforms are connected to the transit system’s private network, Higley says. The company uses a secure VPN connection between its network and the transit authority’s data center, he says.

Ethernet is the most common connection type for digital signs, although High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) and cellular are gaining, MultiMedia Intelligence reports.

To deliver the advertising, Titan uses third-party software to stream the ad content from its company headquarters to its servers housed in the CTA’s data center. The servers then distribute the content to computers attached to each display. Each computer stores a copy of the content, so if the network goes down, the ads continue to run without interruption.

“A master copy is on the server, but it’s also forwarded to each computer, so if we lose network connectivity or have a slow network, it’s not going to affect the playback of content,” Higley says.

CTA’s role is to house Titan’s servers in its data center as well as provide and maintain the fiber-optic network that delivers Titan’s advertisements, information and other data to the rail digital displays.

The digital signs give CTA another way to communicate with its customers. CTA traditionally provides media outlets with information on service disruptions and directly notifies riders through a public address system and by posting information on the agency website. CTA can now use the digital signs on buses and rail stations to communicate with customers who are on the street or entering a rail station. Besides alerting riders of emergency or other transit information, the CTA will also be able to run promotional messages about transit service and initiatives, which can be targeted to individual stations or neighborhoods.

The partnership with Titan is a win-win proposition, CTA officials say. The ads generate additional revenue and the transit system gets a new communication system free of charge. Titan is spending $17.76 million to design, install, maintain and repair the digital screens during the life of the 10-year contract. And at the end of the contract, the CTA will own the digital displays outright.

A program such as this would not have been financially feasible and would have taken longer to get started had CTA not partnered with Titan, transit officials say. This agreement not only allowed the agency to convert to a digital communications network faster, but it also addressed CTA’s continued effort to find ways to generate new revenue without raising fares, officials say.

Protecting Signs from Hackers

Earlier this year, pranksters tampered with electronic road signs in Illinois, Indiana and Texas, altering them with messages that read: “Zombies ahead,” and “Raptors ahead — caution.” In those cases, the road signs were easily changed because their control panels are often left unlocked and their default passwords are left unchanged. The simple solution is to padlock the panels and change the passwords.

But as cities, airports and transit systems begin deploying digital advertising signs that are connected to the Internet, how do IT departments protect them? IT administrators have to implement traditional network security best practices and use multiple layers of security to protect those signs, says Eric Maiwald, research director of security and risk management strategies at the Burton Group.

That means deploying firewalls and intrusion detection and prevention systems, and even using two-factor authentication to sign onto the systems, such as smart cards and tokens, to augment user names and passwords, he says. It also means protecting the physical security of the computers attached to the screens on buses and at train stations.

IT administrators should install a monitoring system, giving employees at the control center the ability to view every digital sign in real time. “If they detect something weird, they can turn it off and go fix it,” Maiwald says.