On-Line, Not in Line, At Car Registry

Massachusetts and BBN launch a new Web site

The era of 24-hour government -- at least in one state in a single agency -- is here.

In what may be the biggest draw to the Internet yet for the average person, a state motor vehicle registry this week set up a World Wide Web site to do business on-line.

That means Massachusetts residents can pay speeding tickets, order vanity license plates and renew car registrations without leaving their living rooms or offices. Better yet, they will be able to avoid the infamous lines at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, and the government will even save money.

"It's innovative and groundbreaking," said Tony Rutkowski, former president of the Reston, Va.-based Internet Society who is now vice president for Internet business development at General Magic, Sunnyvale, Calif. "It's likely to be a model not only for the United States but around the world."

While Massachusetts is the first to have such an elaborate site, other states are close behind. At least six states have informational Web sites, with California and New York being the favorites to come out with the next interactive site. "This will be the first of many [initiatives] that will improve one's quality of life," said Rutkowski.

Since Vice President Al Gore spearheaded the National Performance Review, using technology to improve government has been a popular cause with few milestones. Some use the phrase "service to the citizen" to describe the efforts, which range from transportation to medical projects. The United States has long been behind Europe in the service to the citizen curve.

"We are the first registry to allow customers to renew registrations and pay citations over the Web," said Jerold Gnazzo, registrar of motor vehicles, Massachusetts. "Our goal is to give as many options to our customers to keep them out of the offices."

The technology behind the service belongs to BBN Corp., Cambridge, Mass., the company that helped develop the ARPAnet, which was the predecessor to the Internet. BBN hosts the site, co-designed the service and runs the server. The state of Massachusetts paid BBN $50,000 to develop the site.

"As a result of this technology initiative, residents will enjoy better customer service and ultimately save taxpayer dollars," said Paul Gudonis, BBN Planet president.

Michael Gero, a manager at BBN, said the company is now talking to several other states to do similar projects. "We look at this as a vehicle for a wide range of transactions to the public," said Gero.

BBN's Internet Transaction System encrypts and processes the requests sent over the site, found at www.state.ma.us/rmv. BBN provides the Internet connection on the Massachusetts Access to Government Network (MAGnet) Web server.

BBN said it will monitor the server and Internet connection 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to help keep the site secure. Individuals must use a credit card for all transactions, which of course, regardless of all the security, will send some citizens right back to the line.

To pay a speeding ticket or any other non-criminal infraction, the person enters the citation information and payment choice. A verification number is assigned to the communication. The transaction goes through the next business day (the site is open 24-hours a day) and the customer receives an electronic notice that the bill is paid.

Ordering vanity or specialty license plates should be a breeze, the registry claims. People can find out over the Web what plates are available, they can order whatever one they choose and pay using a credit card. If no one else has made an identical request, the plate is produced and shipped to the closest office for the customer to pick up. People can also choose different designs, such as environmental or Olympic themes.

If a customer loses a vehicle registration, that square of paper required by law to be carried when driving, he can order a new one over the Web. The replacement is sent through the mail. The site also offers general information such as the registry's office hours and the length of license suspensions.

The Web initiative is one of a series of high-tech projects for the registry. Appointed by Massachusetts Gov. William Weld six years ago, registrar Gnazzo placed a heavy emphasis on technology, said Aubrey Haznar, a spokesman for the registry. The on-line service has already resulted in shorter lines and better customer service, he said. "For years the registry was synonymous with going to the dentist."

Haznar said his organization expects the ability to use the Web for such everyday tasks as registering a car will help people realize that the Internet is for everyone. The registry has in the past set up kiosks in malls and an advanced telephone service center.

Next up for the registry is an effort to let people register their new cars right in the dealership. The project is being tested around the state and will be rolled out in 1997, Haznar said.

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