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issue 06/01/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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nodal politics

You Are Here

by David Brake

Location 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 meters.

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 phone.

"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 :
David Brake 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.


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