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March 2007
Volume 10 / Number 3

Location-Based Services

By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis, Feature Articles


With the rise of mobile technology, it will only be a matter of time before various advanced Location-Based Services (LBSs) appear, mostly offered by mobile carriers to both provide one or more services and as an ingenious way of sending customized advertising to cell hone owners. The original applications in this area involved such weighty topics as finding your location for E911 purposes, but soon your search for the closest pizza parlor will be fulfilled and updated by your cell phone on a minute-by-minute basis.

This feat is made possible by two different technologies: First, the recent ability to shrink GPS functionality into a chip and embed it into a cell phone, which informs the carrier/service provider as to the phone’s location. Second, non-GPS chip phones can be part of a system where special assistance servers can tap into radiolocation and trilateration methodologies (triangulation of signal angles or signal-strength measurements). The ability to deploy such services appeared in the 1990s. The services themselves haven’t really taken off yet, but interest is growing. (The governments of the world are probably also interested, since they could conceivably track every subscriber’s location and history of movement.)

In the days before handsets could participate in location-based services, the technology was still small enough to fit in automobiles. Thus began the hubbub over “telematics”.

Indeed, the Heavy Reading Enterprise Group has just published a report, “Enterprise Telematics: Covering Your Assets” which analyzes the current state of telematics. Tim Kridel, a research analyst for Unstrung Enterprise Insider who wrote the report, says: “Telematics is a long-term commitment. Consumers tend to replace their cellphones every 18 to 24 months on average, while the turnover rate at enterprises is somewhat longer. Telematics modules, however, routinely stay in service for several years or longer. A module installed in a truck, for instance, might be in service for a decade or more. As a result, decisions such as vendor and network technology shouldn’t be made lightly, because they determine the total cost of ownership and the ability to add applications over many years.”

Key findings of the report include the following:

• Telematics is still primarily an aftermarket sector, but that’s slowly changing.s

• CDMA2000 telematics radio modules are pricier than GSM/GPRS units.

• Multi-technology telematics solutions are likely to become common by the end of this decade.

• The shutdown of analog cellular networks over the next two years is an issue for telematics applications that are used in remote areas of North America.

• Interoperability issues frequently limit telematics applications and the business case for them.

Most of us will probably encounter more location-based services tied to cell phones. Indeed, the concept can be scaled down for use in the enterprise, or industry, or healthcare.

Cisco’s (quote - news - alert) Marketing Director of Wireless and Mobility, Ben Gibson, says, “Location-based services is a very important area that has a very distinct focus for our wireless network and business unit. Our vision for location- based services involves leveraging our WiFi architecture. We focus on location-based services that employ 802.11 WiFi (define - news - alert) technology. Our offering in the space is our Cisco unified wireless network. This is a combination of wireless LAN controllers with a location-based services appliance that then works in concert with a whole range of different WiFi access points that can be deployed in customer sites — primary indoors today, but increasingly we see moving to outdoor WiFi solutions as well.”

“Our strategy is to develop locationbased solutions integrated into the wireless network infrastructure,” says Gibson. “That’s the product platform we deliver, and then we take that integrated location-based capability that’s part of the WiFi infrastructure and we build programming interfaces into 3rd party business applications that allow a customer to take advantage of the location information that’s generated by the network, and then use that to satisfy a host of different needs.”

“You may well ask what these different needs and business applications are,” says Gibson. “We see our customer base split into two areas of interest: the first is the ability to track assets within an organization to improve organization insight in terms of what’s going on with their assets across the business. That involves how you can utilize a WiFi network to track different IT assets. In a hospital it could be medical devices. In a retail or manufacturing floor it would relate to supply chain management, to be able to track inventories and the like. So we have many customers that use our integrated location system with their WiFi network to do just this.”

Gibson beams: “A great example is Boeing, which has the constant need to be able to track aircraft parts on their manufacturing floors, whether it be a small engine piece or an entire wing. Boeing utilizes our location-based services with their WiFi network to be able to track all of these devices to know where they are and keep them catalogued.”

“With the WiFi network the primary application is data mobility, real-time access ability,” says Gibson. “Let’s say you’re on a laptop or you have a new voice device that talks over WiFi. There are many benefits to purely using that wireless network for mobility. But that same network can also be used to track various assets and devices, and that’s when you get to build some really interesting business cases around location, which makes it a multipurpose network.”

“Asset tracking can utilize active RFID tags,” says Gibson, “and any WiFi-enabled device can be tracked with our location-based technology. That’s one part of the puzzle. The other area that we look at is, how do we use location to provide more efficient methods of communication? I mean, let’s say the network has knowledge of where I am on the Cisco campus. That information can be used and fed into say, a unified messaging application. And that messaging app can then determine ‘Okay, I know that Ben is not in his office. He’s over in the Customer Briefing Center. Therefore, the best way to reach him is by, say, cellular phone or instant messaging or gee, Ben has just returned to his office’.”

“What we’re also doing at Cisco is looking at how we can marry up location- based information and then tie that to different communications or messaging applications, to deliver the notion of presence-based applications,” says Gibson.

Gibson drills down: “So, I’d categorize the two areas of focus for us as answering the following questions: How do we track people for the purpose of communication? And then how do we track devices in terms of streamlining business operations?”

“There’s the potential of using this in a telematics environment,” says Gibson, “of using it in automobiles in concentrated zones, if you will, where WiFi mesh networks are deployed. But the question arises as to how broadly mesh WiFi networks can be scaled up to do that over a much wider area than you would normally encounter. That would require a huge number of outdoor mesh access points to enable such an application. There are some possibilities for such an application, but I think when it first appears it will be confined to various ‘zones’ within cities or certain areas. It’s feasible from a cost perspective to deploy a WiFi mesh in a zone where you have a high density of usage and/or a high development area.”

“When you talk about broadband wireless technologies that can be used as a platform to deliver location-based services,” says Gibson, “a critical notion is that you have to look at what’s embedded in the client device itself. Today, one thing that WiFi enjoys is strong client ubiquity. It’s not just laptop computers. Day by day, you’re seeing new and different types of devices that are getting WiFi integrated into them. You need to have that unless you’re attaching an RFID tag to that device to be able to track all of these things. From that standpoint, there’s going to be a very clear play for WiFibased location services for the foreseeable future.”

“Could all of this be done with some newer longer range technology such as WiMAX 2?” asks Gibson. “Certainly that’s a possibility. We’re still a few years away from that, however. While the Mobile WiMAX standard is still maturing to standards ratification, the next step is that you need to see ubiquity in terms of WiMAX integrated down into dual mode phone devices or laptop computers. To get to that point you must ride the cost curve down to where it makes sense economically, and that’s yet to happen.”

In short, “location-based services” is one of those tantalizing futuristic concepts that takes a while to get going, but once it does, expect a flood of applications and users.

Richard “Zippy” Grigonis is Executive Editor of TMC’s IP Communications Group.



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