Location-based Services - We’re Getting Closer: Lesson’s Learned from ESRI’s LBS Summit

By Hal Reid

At the ESRI User's Conference in this month, members of the telecommunications industry gathered for a one-day Location-based Services (LBS) Summit chaired by Jon Spinney of ESRI and a Directions Magazine columnist.The meeting focused on the progress that was made by wireless carriers to offer location-based services, especially in the U.S., and determine a model for promoting these services.The session also addressed mobile computing.There is a definite connection between the two, and there is growing evidence that they are beginning to merge in terms of devices and services.

David Maguire, Director, Products, Solutions and International at ESRI, gave the keynote and he identified some of the things that are driving mobile computing/LBS technologies.

  • An increasingly itinerant workforce
  • Every device is becoming location-enabled
  • The need for "just in time" decision making
  • Support for field analysis
Not very hidden in his presentation was a real passion for the potential. The audience could sense that he has a vision for how to get his products on mobile devices and he set the tone for the meeting.

But to be really effective, mobile computing/LBS needs to be able to be:

  • Accessible to a widely distributed user base
  • Accessible in real-time
  • Able to access to large volumes of data
  • Fast - in terms of wireless access
In spite of the needs and realities, there continues to inhibitors to expansion of these technologies and services to consumers.For example, the following is a list of simply practical items that need to be addressed:
  • Large screens
  • Long battery life
  • High Resolution screens
  • Overall weight of the handset
  • High power processors
With these in mind, there is an overwhelming tendency to want to merge the PDA and the cell phone, thereby bringing more power, bigger screens and greater functionality.All of these areas were being addressed by ESRI via there products: ArcPad, ArcWeb Services and the ArcGIS Engine.ESRI also has a Java tool kit to allow the creation of applications that can be downloaded to Java enabled cell phones.

ESRI gave a demonstration showing ArcPAD embedded to a SmartPhone was moving maps and imagery to a cell phone "on-demand" by the field user. Maguire used his own cell phone to augment the demo.

How is this technology currently used?

In addition to using maps in the field to locate infrastructure or for vehicle routing, new applications were introduced, such as:

  • Workforce tracking
  • Monitoring of vehicles
  • Creating geo-fences to determine if a field entity has strayed out of an assigned area
  • Field workers completing or receiving work orders wirelessly
These applications were moving beyond the traditional local government users and into sales, logistics and other commercial areas.Voice, of course, was now a just another service in addition to LBS.Almost universal in the vendor's presentations was the need for data to be seen as the new "killer app" area for mobile computing/LBS.

To illustrate this, an example was presented of a repair service that needed to locate the nearest specialist on a particular piece of equipment. With the current incorporation of GPS into cell phones for E911, this functionality allows for the location of workers with specific skill sets.The worker could be located, the nature of the problem sent to him (data) and the timing of his ability to respond given to the end customer.

This type of scenario was repeated for a number of industries, from fishing boats to local pick up and delivery to field workforce management.

Common Services

Common, basic expectations by customers were identified by Nitin Patel, Director of Marketing and Business Development, Telenity, Inc., echoing what others were saying.The term he used was ARPU:

  • Anytime, anywhere, any device -- The issue of anytime, anywhere, and on any device highlighted the nature of real time access, the coverage problems, and more importantly, the need for standards (any device) so that the device or the network supplying each service was no longer a factor.
  • Reduce costs (for the enterprise using the technology) -- Reducing costs mirrors the current ROI modeling of anything within the enterprise. If it doesn't improve anything or reduce costs, it is a very tough sell.
  • Privacy and Personalization -- Privacy is an increasing concern. If your cell phone is on, you can be located.For many people that can be a concern, perhaps making voice mail a must.Security concerning corporate data (i.e.who is working on what for whom) and propriety information, makes security a major issue.Personalization is more than unique ring tones but encompasses the spectrum of application that can be put together for both business and personal use.For the pleasure traveler, for example, airport information, news, flights and custom SMS templates is helpful.For business users, there is a need to have access to forms and other services by field worker which requires some customization.
  • User experience and content -- There has to be real value in the user experience, especially with the delivery of targeted content and the ease in which the content can be retrieved.If it is hard to use, the screen size is too small, wireless access is limited or processing power quashes applications, the service will fail.If the devices can't deliver the service, close isn't good enough.

What do the Telecoms have to offer?

The Sprint wireless base is 20 million phones and 100 million calls per day.They have raised the intelligence level of their transmission facilities (for faster and more intelligent call and data handling), and in 2005 they will move to EV-00, which will offer data speeds of 300 kps to 500 kps.This will enhance MMS (multi-media message services), web access and the general movement of data.They do extensive testing of middleware with their network.All new Sprint phones have Aided-GPS (A-GPS) and Sprint partners with other to provide "cool apps" to expand other services.Sprint works with ESRI's' Web Services to address multi-platforms and the existing 20 million Sprint cell phones.Sprint is among the fastest available in the U.S.

Nextel approached their offering in a somewhat different manner. Here is one of the questions they posed and then answered.

  • Offer a Locate service for a $15/mo add-on...
  • Offer a Navigate service, in real-time routing with voice updates...
  • Offer a Tracking service, for either vehicles or an employee monitoring system
For the Locate service, Nextel is anticipating (via the GPS chips) to poll the cell phone and provide the accessible GPS constellation data to obtain a 10 second fix on the phone and also obtain the last five positions of the handset.Locate works with E911, or other applications that need a precise location.Navigate is a standard offering for simply "pinging" a phone's location.and in some cases is a difficult application to maintain with current information.While Navigate can be very useful, it is a very dynamic service to keep up to date.The Track applications were highlighted by a Teen Arrive Alive program.In this application, a teenager's phone is tracked so their arrival time can be determined and mapped.A very interesting problem: privacy vs.safety concerns.Nextel will also have a location-based API to serve A-GPS phone applications and will also support Java.

Verizon Wireless offers the service called "GeItNow." Recently, a Directions Magazine staff member signed up for the the service to obtain traffic updates between Huntsville, Alabama and South Bend, Indiana.The updates were verbose and understandable but not very helpful.It was difficult to determine whether the service could actually determine the location of the recipient, but it is suspected that the only way it could work is if each cell tower were broadcasting a traffic alert and when the phone was in proximity to the tower it obtained the broadcasted message.One of the alerts told of an accident; however the notice was received about 2 miles before the location was encountered; more or less a 2 minute warning -- Not enough time to make a change in driving options.When the staff member got to the location, the accident had already cleared.

Qualcomm supports BREW, a middleware that provides access to 100+ gpsOne-enabled handsets and 25 million devices (cell phones and others).There are 145 models and there are 27 manufacturers of BREW enabled phones.They also (via BREW) allow access to ArcWeb Services and GPS-enabled phones.

Qualcomm has just recently changed the name of their location middleware from SnapTrack to QPoint.The QPoint solutions is intended to offer:

  • Better Accuracy and Precision for finding locations
  • Fewer keystrokes for data input
  • Automatic location determination
It appeared that Qualcomm was focused on BREW as their standard, and you wondered if other standards became more successful, if this wasn't a major limitation.

Bottom Line

There was also a need for clarity in the understanding of the marketplace. While pedestrian navigation will be one of the most common functionalities offered, will it really be profitable? Most of the vendors were looking at business and the movement of data as the area where they would finally make money.

In spite of the current limitations, real and valid solutions to real problems are being developed in cost effective ways.Yet, somehow, there was a sense that the promise was still not fulfilled, and the best was still yet to come.

Published Saturday, August 28th, 2004

Written by Hal Reid

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