by David Brake
technology is making advances at lightning speed. Companies are
vying to provide the next generation of services so accurate, that
in the next five years just about anything and anyone with a global
positioning receiver will be able to be located within just a few
President Clinton's descrambling of the signals transmitted
by the US military's $10 billion Global
Positioning Satellite system (GPS) was a near-textbook example
of how the removal of government interference can transform an industry.
Overnight, without changing their equipment, 4 million GPS users
became able to identify their location within ten metres instead
of a hundred - a boon for hikers, boaters and a variety of industrial
and scientific users. This could help the GPS industry to double
in size from $8 billion to $16 billion in the next three years.
But while GPS thus far has been synonymous with location finding
for the general public, the technology may only play a small role
in the coming explosion in location-based services, spurred by the
spread of services providing information services to the mobile
"Where in the world are you?"
According to telecomms consultancy Ovum, by 2005 there may be
500 million users of mobile-data services around the globe, spending
$211 billion. Many of the most useful services offered will depend
on your telephone reporting your location. Companies like Webraska can already help you find your way
to your destination by car, bus or foot in cities across the world,
but they can't tell you where to go until you tell them where you
are. If you know your location you can type it in on your handset
today, but entering a city and street name can take upward of 20
button presses, so a phone that locates itself would make their
services much more convenient.
In the US, phone companies have a strong additional incentive
to locate their customers - the US government has enacted a law,
E911, which over the next few years will require them to provide
the location of callers to the emergency services. Elsewhere in
the world, there won't be the same regulatory push towards offering
this service, but pressure from would-be advertisers on the phone
companies will still be strong.
"Hi Mom, I'm at Jennifer's house."
One of the biggest companies working to provide location information
for mobiles is Snaptrack,
which was recently purchased by Qualcomm,
a leading mobile technology company. Its system requires a GPS in
each handset, but though GPS is synonymous with location finding
in the minds of many, there are several other technologies available
to locate mobile phone users. Mobile phone companies have long been
able to locate their users in principle, because whenever you switch
on your phone you make contact with a base station. Unfortunately,
while in densely populated cities this can locate you within a hundred
feet, in the countryside each base station could cover 20 miles
or more. Using a GPS gives much better accuracy, but it may not
in the end be the best solution for the mobile phone. The receiver
adds to the cost, requires additional power and takes space in the
handset. It also needs to communicate with the network of GPS satellites
(preferably in line of sight) and it can some time to fix its position
-though through improvements to processing of GPS signals, SnapTrak
says it can minimise these problems.
"Oh, really. Then why does GPS say you're
on the highway?"
Companies like Cambridge
Positioning Systems believe they have a better solution. By
using additional transmitters on a phone company's base stations
they can fix location more precisely. Although its system requires
additional investment by mobile phone operators, existing phone
users with data-capable handsets will not need to upgrade to use
it, and it should work better than a GPS indoors and in "urban canyons"
- between skyscrapers, for example. The system was tested by Vodafone
and the AA in the Cambridge area of the UK last year, and located
most people to within 125 meters - they expect to get this down
to a 50 meter radius by the end of the year. This is still less
accurate than a GPS receiving the now-unscrambled signal, but it's
close enough for most practical applications. And when the next
generation of phones, dubbed 3G, come along, CPS says they will
be able to locate users within 5 meters. Within two years they say
all mobile phones will offer some form of location finding.
But while location technology races ahead, it is not clear what
the social implications will be. Long distance truck drivers are
already having their loads tracked and their performance monitored
using GPS - will white collar employees be happy if their phones
perform the same function for their bosses or kids want their parents
to be able to track their every move? We are already grappling with
the implications of ubiquitous communication - it is time to start
thinking about ubiquitous location.
b i o :
has been on the Internet for 12 years and writing about it for
five, yet somehow he is still not rich beyond his wildest imaginings.
He tries not to let this bother him. For more information than
you could ever want about David Brake, visit his website.