SiRF and Skyhook to Offer Hybrid GPS/Wi-Fi Location Solution

By Adena Schutzberg

Today at 3GSM World Congress 2007, the big communications show in Barcelona, Spain, Boston-based Skyhook, which specializes in location determination using Wi-Fi, announced a relationship with one of the most recognized name in GPS chips: SiRF. SiRF has licensed Skyhook's Wi-Fi Positioning System (WPS) to integrate the two technologies so that handsets can use either location determining method for location-based applications.
Press release

Skyhook's technology relies on Wi-Fi (also known as 802.11) and uses a "map" of the locations of Wi-Fi access points to locate a Wi-Fi-enabled device. In areas that have been mapped, where there are many access points, accuracy can be very high. At this point, Skyhook has mapped areas covering about 70% of the U.S. population and the majority of the Canadian population. The company is working on Europe and Asia, and hopes that coverage will be pushed forward by demand for the integrated solution.

Most people think of a GPS technology as consisting of only a chip that is assembled into a device. But of course, there is some software involved, too. That software can run either "on the chip" or "on the device." So, when a manufacturer purchases a chip from SiRF, it can specify how the software is delivered. And, according to Ted Morgan, CEO and founder of Skyhook, the manufacturers have strong feelings one way or the other based on specific concerns related to the amount of dissipated heat, the speed of processing and other considerations. The Skyhook technology is 100% software-based and requires a Wi-Fi chip. A manufacturer can buy a GPS chip from SiRF that includes the Skyhook software "on board" or choose to run the software on the device. The interesting part is that SiRF does not sell Wi-Fi chips.

Morgan explained that this is not really an issue. Most handset vendors, he contends, have already decided on Wi-Fi for their devices and have selected chips. SiRF hopes that adding Skyhook technology to its GPS chips will bring a unique competitive advantage. By selecting the hybrid offering, the vendors can take advantage of the already purchased/selected Wi-Fi and include a top notch GPS chip from SiRF. And, Morgan is quick to point out that partnerships between Skyhook and Wi-Fi chip manufacturers are very possible.

The hardware and software for location determination are built fairly deep into a device. In fact, the end-user need not know whether GPS or Wi-Fi is "doing the work." Software, either on or off the chip, determines which method is used and at what time. In many cases, whichever has the most accuracy will be used, and on other occasions, the two will literally work together to determine the most accurate position. That location, basically a longitude/latitude pair, is passed up to the application layer (e.g. VZ Navigator, Telenav, whatever carrier or non-carrier application is selected) for use. Not only does the user not need to know how the location information was derived, neither does the application.

Virtually all GPS users are familiar with the challenges of using it indoors or in urban canyons: it's hard to get a signal. Carriers are aware of the challenge too, reporting that cell phones are used indoors between 70 and 80% of the time. That's one reason to use a hybrid system, explains Morgan. Another is "time to fix." It can take a GPS chip one to several minutes to start up and find satellites required for navigation. Navigation system providers get many complaints about that limitation. The Wi-Fi solution is much quicker and gets drivers navigating while the GPS system "warms up."

While there is a substantial market for the hybrid solution in mobile phones, Morgan notes that Skyhook just signed a deal to put its software in a Wi-Fi-enabled MP3 player. He notes that cameras which "location stamp" pictures are another possible market, as are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that do not own a licensed frequency spectrum, but resell wireless services under their own brand name (such as Boost or Virgin Mobile). Additionally, Skyhook has many partners from different sectors of the location industry including Tele Atlas, which resells its technology, and AOL, which uses its technology for location-enabled instant messenger, among others.

This integration isn't the first, and won't be last, to try to tap into the multiple technologies for locating, but it's a big step forward for location-based services. The hybrid solutions will potentially eliminate one major complaint about such services: the limited accuracy and coverage of GPS.

Published Friday, February 9th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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